Layoffs hit Sun Chronicle as coronavirus hammers newspapers

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ATTLEBORO, Mass. (WPRI) — The Sun Chronicle has been forced to lay off employees as the rapid economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic hammers the already beleaguered newspaper industry.

Craig Borges, the Attleboro daily’s top editor, told WPRI 12 he’d “had to make cuts throughout the building, in every department, because of a lack of advertising.” He said the forced shutdown of restaurants had been particularly damaging because they make up a large number of ad buyers.

“Everyone’s saying they want to be with us, but they have to put everything on hold because they have no money coming in,” he said.

Among those laid off was political reporter Jim Hand, a fixture at The Sun for three decades known for his encyclopedic knowledge of politics in and around Bristol County. Still a reporter, Hand broke the news of his own layoff online:

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker joined an outpouring of praise for Hand on social media:

Borges said the Sun is considering its layoffs a furlough. “We want them to be able to collect, so that’s why we’re treating it as a layoff, because otherwise we can’t afford to pay them to not work,” he said, adding, “It was all economics. I had to hit a figure.”

Hand was not the only local newspaper reporter who lost his job on Tuesday. Cameron Merritt, North Kingstown reporter for The Independent, also said on Twitter he was laid off:

Alarm is spreading fast through American’s journalism community about the depth of the potential damage from the downturn being caused by COVID-19. A growing number of newspapers throughout the country, particularly weeklies, have announced cuts or even closures.

Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, called it “a scary moment.”

“For years, people who watch the news business have warned that the next recession would have a devastating effect on media outlets, especially newspapers,” he said in an email. “Now the recession is here.”

Kennedy said he hopes the current rounds of cuts can be quickly reversed if the pandemic is brought under control before long.

“But if this goes on for longer than a few months, I’m afraid that many newspapers and other outlets will close their doors for good — leaving the public with high-quality coverage at the national level but with nothing to inform them about what is going on in their communities. This is a scary moment,” he said.

Other local newspapers have also already been forced to scale back due to the crisis.

The weekly Providence Business News announced earlier this week it will temporarily suspend its print edition in order to save money and shift to an all-digital model. Roger Bergenheim, the paper’s owner and publisher, told the Boston Business Journal he had also been forced to let go of two employees.

In the West Bay, the twice-a-week Warwick Beacon announced last week it is suspending publication of its Tuesday edition “for the foreseeable future” because so many community events it would usually cover are cancelled.

There are also concerns about the financial health of the region’s largest newspaper owner, Gannett, which now owns The Providence Journal, the New Bedford Standard-Times, the Fall River Herald News, the Newport Daily News and other publications after merging with Gatehouse last year.

Shares of Gannett have plunged 70% on the New York Stock Exchange since Feb. 19. What was then Gatehouse took out a $1.8 billion loan at an eye-popping 11.5% interest rate last year to consummate its take over of the old Gannett, taking the latter’s name.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

An earlier version of this story misstated which company led the Gannett-Gatehouse merger.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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