New York (CNN Business)Local news publications have been hard hit by financial pressure stemming from the pandemic, with many operating newsrooms gutted by layoffs and furloughs. Now, local journalists are juggling coverage of twin crises — the pandemic and the protests roiling the country — with even fewer resources.
Protestors in cities across the country took to the streets to call for justice over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of police officers last week in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the deaths of other black Americans.
Reporting on complex and fast-changing events like the current protests typically calls for all hands on deck, but some reporters are simply unable to contribute. The pandemic’s economic impact has led to tens of thousands of layoffs and furloughs in media industry since March, with local newspapers among the hardest hit.
“We had people downtown and in all corners of the city. We worked hard to capture what was going on, and I’m proud of the work we did but imagine how much better it could have been if so many of us weren’t on furlough,” said Megan Crepeau, a Chicago Tribune reporter and president of the Chicago Tribune Guild.
On Sunday, Amber Hunt, investigative reporter at The Cincinnati Inquirer, wrote about the protests in her community in a story titled, “Another nightfall brings more tear gas, arrests as Cincinnati protests escalate for the 3rd day.”
But as of 12 a.m. on Monday, Hunt must halt her coverage: she’s on furlough for a full week. The Cincinnati Enquirer is owned by newspaper conglomerate Gannett, which implemented furloughs for staffers who make at least $38,000 a year, forcing them take one week per month of unpaid leave in April, May and June.
Hunt, who has a six-year-old at home and whose husband recently lost his job, wasn’t even scheduled to work on Sunday. She had been on vacation for the past week, but after seeing what was happening over the weekend, she decided to work.
“I knew the people who have been running around covering the pandemic have been covering it nonstop and now we have this, so they much be exhausted,” Hunt told CNN Business. “I volunteered because somebody has to sleep sometime.”
The Commercial Appeal, a Gannett-owned paper in Memphis, Tennessee, is under similar constraints due to furloughs. Katherine Burgess, a Commercial Appeal reporter and president of the Memphis Newspaper Guild, said she typically covers local government, religion and the suburbs, but she pivoted earlier this year to cover the health crisis. This past weekend, she shifted her focus again to the protests in Memphis.
“It’s been really hard,” Burgess said. “I think one of our photographers has been out there every night because our photo staff is so small. When a certain percentage of our newsroom is furloughed, we just have fewer staff to work with.”
Burgess said 25 out of 27 staffers at The Commercial Appeal were furloughed at one point or another since April.
Activist Frank Gottie is urging people to join him in protesting crime as well as police brutality. pic.twitter.com/ICVjBWpv3L
Phillip Jackson, crime and justice reporter at The Baltimore Sun, said his colleagues have been teaming up to cover the protests.
“We kind of have this all hands on deck approach of who we have right now,” Jackson told CNN Business. “When somebody’s time for that day ends, the next reporter steps in.”
Similar to Gannett papers, The Baltimore Sun staff is facing furloughs. Its owner, Tribune Publishing, mandated staffers take different lengths of unpaid leave depending on their salaries. Jackson said he is going on his second week of furlough next week.
“We stay real positive because we know these stories are important and at the end of the day we have to tell them,” Jackson said. “Officer involved deaths have become very localized across the country. I think this really speaks to the importance of local media. That we’re able to have reporters here and work through these furlough times.”
The crowd of protesters in Baltimore has grown to thousands. They have made their way to the expressway. pic.twitter.com/50e1LU1CyP
Garry Smits, a reporter at the Gannett-owned Florida Times-Union, helped cover the protests in Jacksonville, Florida. While he typically covers sports, his focus changed to the pandemic’s impact on local businesses. Last weekend, it was the protests. But starting Monday, he’s on furlough for a week.
“In a way it kind of interrupts your momentum,” Smits said. “You might be working on a few stories, in a bit of a groove and then you have to stop and can’t continue conversations with your sources or your editors.”
Branden Hunter said The Detroit Free Press, also Gannett-owned paper, hired him in January to report on neighborhoods. But he admitted that he hasn’t done much of that. In March, his focus turned to the pandemic and other breaking news stories. Since Friday, he has been covering the protests in Detroit.
“I’ve been out with the protestors for the last four days until at least two or three in the morning,” Hunter said. “It’s definitely been tiring and a lot of work. I haven’t been able to do what I initially came here for, but it’s given me a lot of experience with covering these two events.”
Hunter said he was threatened at gunpoint by an officer while covering the protests on Saturday.
“I’m 30, a young, African-American male, in streetwear, and that was the demographic that was down there that night. I blended in with the crowd. I tried to stay with my white coworkers, stayed in groups. The officer walked right passed about six of me and my colleagues and he pointed the gun at me and told me to leave,” Hunter said.
Detroit @freep FB live video of the Detroit Police approaching me with a gun loaded with rubber bullets telling me to leave. I blended in too well with the crowd. Had to stand near my white colleagues all night because I didn’t want to run when the tear gas came and get arrested. pic.twitter.com/Mi4bSCzfsl
The Denver Post, owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, had mandated three weeks of furloughs for staffers from April to June. Reporter Alex Burness was furloughed for two weeks during that time but his third week was canceled after the newsroom received a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project.
Last week, Burness started to transition from a full-time pandemic reporter back to a politics reporter as the Colorado capitol reopened. But since Thursday — when someone fired gunshots near the Colorado State Capitol building — his coverage once again shifted.
“It’s really been nonstop,” Burness told CNN Business, speaking from the capitol building where a protest was ongoing. “During the day time, there’s a lot of standard rallying… and then as the sun goes down it gets really dark and quite violent.”
Day 5 of protest in Denver. Crowd is steadily growing outside the Capitol. pic.twitter.com/ExsH1Vp7UJ
Two reporters of The Courier-Journal, a Gannett-owned paper in Louisville, Kentucky, declined to be interviewed. One is on furlough and told CNN Business that speaking to the press might violate that. The other was on deadline for coverage of the protests.
In Louisville, protestors demanded justice for the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor. On Thursday night, seven people were shot and property damage was reported. Local business owner David McAtee was shot and killed by police.
“There’s never been a time that we have faced such unprecedented change, and we rise up and face those challenges,” said Courier-Journal editor Rick Green. “You can sit back and wring your hands and you can bemoan the economics of journalism or you can roll up your sleeves and rally your troops.”
Josh Solomon, St. Petersburg City Hall reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, told CNN Business that his newsroom’s main focus had been the coronavirus until Friday. Back in March, as the pandemic was unfolding in the United States, The Tampa Bay Times laid off 11 journalists and later furloughed some staffers.
While the paper published wire stories on George Floyd’s death and protests around the nation, Solomon said it became clear on Friday that the unrest would become a local story. He attended protests in St. Petersburg over the weekend while his colleagues covered ones in Tampa Bay.
“The last weekend has been kind of a blur,” Solomon said. “The protests totally consumed our newspaper, totally consumed our newsroom.”
“I can’t breathe,” the crowed chanted while lying on their stomachs in front of Flute & Dram, Tryst and the Museum I’d Fine Art. “Look at how f—king beautiful this is,” the marching leader yelled into a bullhorn. pic.twitter.com/1vcQkrT0vv
Tampa Bay Times executive editor Mark Katches said he had about 40 to 50 staffers covering the protests over the weekend.
“The danger and concern I have is how do you sustain it,” Katches said. “You can be on a big story but you can’t work 24/7. You’re going to get burned out so it’s important strategically that we make sure we’re taking people off, putting people on, making sure it doesn’t get to the point where they’re totally exhausted.”
With fewer reporters, newsrooms also are unable to cover other stories — ones related to the pandemic and the unrest but also other local topics such as tax policy and prison reform.
Hunt of The Cincinnati Inquirer typically investigates cases of prisoners who claim innocence and produces a true crime podcast called “Accused.” But her podcast has been put on hold because of the pandemic.
“I feel an extra weight to investigate these cases because it’s bad enough for somebody to be wrongly incarcerated. It’s even worse to die because of it,” Hunt said, referring to high Covid-19 infection and death rates within the prison system. “There’s a lot going on right now that you have to set aside. That’s always true when there’s breaking news but this has been so sustained that it’s hard to see when the end is going to come.”