Within two months of the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the U.S., at least 30 local newspapers across the country closed or merged due to financial situations. Meanwhile, hundreds of other community newspapers responded with layoffs, furloughs and production changes, such as shifting to an exclusive online format and reducing the number of print editions. Thomas said this shift in thinking also recognizes that reliance on an advertising model, the source of revenue for much traditional journalism, is a risky venture. He said their research revealed a debate between editors and publishers about whether or not paywalls — a newer form of revenue for many media organizations — should be used to access news about the coronavirus.

“On one hand, journalism is a public service and information about the coronavirus is essential for making the community aware of the health threats and safety measures that should be taken,” Thomas said. “On the other hand, if that information is located behind a paywall, people cannot access it. However, a paywall is also one source of revenue and can help keep the lights on. That’s what makes this a complicated situation.”

Teri Finneman, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, and co-author on the study, was glad to see how honest journalists were when writing about their situations.

“Over the last decade or so, I think the public keeps hearing the soundbite that journalism is dying, but I don’t know if the public truly understands how journalism works,” said Finneman, who received her master’s degree and doctorate from MU. “So, it’s important that journalists have more of these honest conversations with the public, so that the public has a greater understanding of what journalists need to be able to adequately serve them. Journalism does have business model challenges, and while some areas in journalism are thriving and great work is being done, journalism still needs communities to invest into their local newsrooms similar to the effort that journalists are making who are invested in serving the needs of their local communities.”

The study, “Our Company is in Survival Mode”: Metajournalistic Discourse on COVID-19’s Impact on U.S. Community Newspapers,” was published in the journal Journalism Practice.