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Local news deemed ‘essential’ but strained amid outbreak

Jeremy McCasland and the rest of the press crew at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise office in Saranac Lake run off a section of North Country This Week, a St. Lawrence County weekly newspaper, on Thursday. Other newspapers they print include the Enterprise, Lake Placid News, Tupper Lake Free Press, Gouverneur Tribune-Press, Lake George Mirror and Lake Champlain Weekly. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Jennifer Zahn, a Saranac Laker and Enterprise subscriber, has a morning ritual. She wakes up at 6 a.m. every day, goes downstairs and grabs her copy of the newspaper.

She said she likes to know what’s going on in town and feels that she would be out of the loop without the newspaper. She said not having it exist would be a detriment to the community.

“Oh gosh, I can’t imagine,” she said. “That’s a rather frightening thought.”

However, just as the coronavirus pandemic has put stress on restaurants, bars, retail stores and hotels — causing many to temporarily close — the global health threat has also taken a toll on media.

News is one of the industries Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated as essential, along with medical care, law enforcement, emergency services and many more.

Newspapers are for sale Wednesday on a rack at the entrance of the Hyde Mobil convenience store on Broadway, Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

“This is a time when people need to read us,” Enterprise and Lake Placid News Publisher Cathy Moore said. “They need to read a newspaper, but they also need to support us more than ever.”

The desert

Having a local paper is less common these days. Back in the early 1940s, about 40 million Americans subscribed to daily newspapers, according to the Pew Research Center. The industry was on the upturn for the next few decades, reaching a little more than 63 million subscribers in 1984. However, as both broadcast and internet news sources grew and delivered free content, paid-for newspapers had more competition. By 2014, there were fewer daily subscribers than in 1940.

In 2018, the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism found more than one in five papers has closed over the past decade-and-a-half, leaving thousands of our communities at risk of becoming news deserts.

Ethan Gawel, program director for 93.3/102.1 The Mix and Adirondack 105, speaks on the air at the FM radio stations’ studio in Lake Placid in July 2019. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

“Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities,” the study says. “Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable — the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”

The importance

Moore said the Enterprise is important because its team of professional reporters and editors focuses on the Tri-Lakes community.

“We offer local news that you can’t get anywhere else,” she said. “It’s the stories that pertain to who’s running for office, what’s happening with the school, what’s happening with the town budgets, what’s happening with my assessment on my house, what are the sales at the grocery stores. I think we have so much value, giving people not only what they need to know but what they want to know.”

Dan McClelland has owned and operated the Tupper Lake Free Press since the late 1970s. He said his job right now is to inform people on the guidelines they should follow to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

“We’ve been passing on our local orders from both the village and town,” he said. “I check with the supervisor and mayor every day or two. It’s very important to have local media today.”

Local radio stations 93.3/102.1 The Mix and Adirondack 105 generally would get news via press releases and read them on the air. Vice President and Sales Manager Jim Williams said he’s looking to expand the stations’ news coverage.

“Mostly we were just passing along news informally through the DJs,” he said. “Our morning news show is all headlines. The plan is to start daily reports on both The Mix and Adirondack 105 that will be partially locally focused and partially community focused.

“People are being overwhelmed with national hype, and we want to come up with a way to provide important information with a local focus. A lot of times people can get caught up in the panic. We want to give accurate information, so we reached out to all the various town supervisors, and we’re checking in with them.”

He said the reports would include updates from county governments and health officials, as well as notifications of local services such as churches that offer community suppers.

Recently, Program Director Ethan Gawel did an on-air interview with Adirondack Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Darci Beiras.

“We were bombarded with questions,” Williams said. “We put up a social media post on Facebook and asked to post any questions we had about the virus. We then forwarded those to the doctor.”

Money

Generally, the biggest portion of a commercial news outlet’s revenue comes from advertising, rather than subscribers or daily purchases. There are a few exceptions, such as the New York Times which had readership revenue surpass ad revenue in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 State of the News Media report, the total estimated U.S. newspaper industry advertising revenue for 2017 was $16.5 billion. The total estimated circulation revenue was $11 billion.

It’s local advertisers such as the Adirondack Healths, the Evergreen Auto Centers and the Franklin County Office for the Agings that are the Enterprise’s bread and butter. However, in a time when so many businesses are temporarily closing and cutting costs, fewer are buying ad space.

“We’re kind of a reflection of the community,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t say we’re the canary in the coal mine, but when businesses are doing good, they’re advertising.”

The Enterprise and News’ parent company, Ogden Newspapers, is trying to help turn the tide by offering a $1 million grant fund for businesses in its local markets, such as the Tri-Lakes area. Any such business can apply for to $15,000 in advertising credit with the newspapers, usable through June 30.

When asked how long the Enterprise can maintain if the economy continues in this manner, Moore said she wanted to remain optimistic.

“We’ve got to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” she said. “Nobody knows. The governor is thinking how to keep people safe, and still not kill the economy.”

McClelland wouldn’t say exactly what his readership is, but he said it has grown slightly since the pandemic became a reality for locals.

“I think people are turning to us for the Tupper Lake news, and we certainly deliver it,” he said. “Every family in Tupper Lake reads it; that’s my supposition.

However, like the Enterprise, the Free Press’ ad revenue is on the downtick.

“When I got in the business 40 years ago, the revenues were a lot greater,” McClelland said. There was a lot more advertisers. I’m sort of a barometer of Tupper Lake. As Tupper Lake’s economy grows and declines, so does my ad revenue. We’re having a tough time in Tupper Lake. A lot of businesses are just hanging on.

“If this runs into the summer, we’re going to be in trouble because so many of us rely on our tourism trade, like how Lake Placid and Saranac Lake do.”

Like plenty of newspapers, Williams said ads take up the biggest portion of his radio stations’ revenue.

“Radio ads are going down,” he said. “To combat that, we’re offering all advertising, until the end of April at least, at half price.”

He said promoting local businesses isn’t just about which ones are buying ads. The radio stations recently produced a 60-second commercial as part of a national public service campaign called the #GiftCardChallenge.

“I think we have stations in about 10 different states running the commercial,” he said. “We’re basically encouraging listeners to go out and buy a gift card from a local businesses.”

Thanks

Recently, the Enterprise received a voicemail from longtime reader Rick Gonyea of Vermontville.

“Just calling to thank you guys from the Enterprise just for being there, getting the news out on the coronavirus to us all and the North Country,” he said. “You’re doing a nice job with that, so hats off to you.

“You’re on the front line with everybody else, so again, thank you all. Have a great day. Stay healthy. Stay safe. Bye now.”

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