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As coronavirus slams businesses, some small Michigan newspapers struggle

Lights are flickering in some Michigan newsrooms as the coronavirus crisis drains advertising revenue needed to pay journalists to report on the pandemic.

C&G Newspapers, a chain of 19 weeklies in Oakland and Macomb counties — where virus cases are growing rapidly — announced Saturday it is temporarily suspending print newspaper publication. 

The move follows the “heavy toll” of the coronavirus and the “financial impact of the vast number of business closures,” the company said in a statement to Bridge Saturday evening.

C&G plans to resume print publication in two to four weeks weeks, C&G Editorial Director Gregg Demers said. 

“Keep in mind that this situation is fluid and changing every day,” he said.

The statement said the paper chain hopes to resume its “valuable relationships with local advertising partners who supply the revenue that supports C&G’s professional community journalism.” It did not detail any layoffs or other impacts on employees. 

The C&G announcement came hours after a Michigan Press Association bulletin described newspapers statewide as facing “immense pressure” from lost advertising during the crisis. 

MPA said it understood the need for newspapers to cut costs but encouraged that the industry would seek government economic relief soon. MPA said it had “grave concerns” that disruption of newspaper delivery could threaten newspapers’ long-term fight to maintain printed public notices from government bodies – an important source of revenue and transparent government. 

Newspapers are the “trusted source,” MPA Public Affairs Manager Lisa McGraw told Bridge. 

“We want to remain that trusted source in local communities. If you shut down, you are no longer a legal publication.”

[I]t truly pains me to not be able to write and keep my community, or any, informed. I'd do it free if I could still survive, sadly that's not the case." - C&G news reporter Jonathan Shead

MPA represents nearly 250 statewide newspapers. The press association indefinitely postponed its annual convention on March 11, hours before it was set to begin, due to the coronavirus.

C&G news reporter Jonathan Shead announced his layoff Friday on his personal Facebook page with expectation it would be temporary.

“I thought being in the news would provide potentially higher job security, but even the news has to make money… [I]t truly pains me to not be able to write and keep my community, or any, informed. I'd do it free if I could still survive, sadly that's not the case.”

In Facebook posts this week, including Saturday, C&G promoted timely and important coronavirus news: community health alerts, reports cases in local schools, volunteer profiles, cancelled local events, and concerns about local blood supplies. 

Trouble is brewing for other small-town papers, said Jim Stevenson, publisher of the Spinal Column Newsweekly serving more than 100,000 readers in western Oakland County.

From Realtors and dentists to grocery stores, Spinal Column’s largest advertisers fled over the past ten days.

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“Realtors are saying they can’t do anything — nobody wants to walk through a house right now,” Stevenson said. “I just visited with the owner of a meat market, a good advertiser. He has a line out the door and told me, ‘Jim, I’ve been here since 4 a.m. I don’t need to advertise.’”

Spinal Column has reduced hours for two of its four employees and plans to shrink to eight pages next week, with no clear plan after that.  

“If I don’t have any advertising, I really don’t have much of a choice,”  he said.

The Metro Times, an alternative weekly publishing in Metro Detroit since 1980, announced Wednesday it was laying off eight, leaving, as of Friday, a “skeleton crew” of three editorial staffers, two sales reps, and an art director. 

The coronavirus crisis hits newspapers at a particularly tenuous time. Even during the past decade of economic expansion across Michigan, newsroom cutbacks have been commonplace. 

Michigan has experienced more than 30 newspaper closures and a more than 40 percent decrease in professional journalists since 2004, according to government employment statistics and industry studies. 

“There is no American industry of such combined size and civic importance that has endured such an economically devastating decade,” the American Journalism Project, a social venture capital fund established to bolster local news reporting, declared last year

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