Federal payroll loans helped local media outlets weather the COVID-19 shutdown
DILLON — When COVID-19 officially arrived in Summit County in early March, coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic overtook local media outlets.
In the midst of covering a critical news story, local media organizations were not immune from the financial impacts of the shutdown. Across news platforms, local media scrambled to cover the pandemic despite business models that largely depend on advertisements from area businesses.
Needless to say, advertising plummeted as businesses shut down.
Miranda Fisher, Always Mountain Time general manager for Summit and Grand counties, recalled her initial experience with COVID-19 when someone came into the office to record and later called to say they had been exposed to the new virus.
“We ended up closing our offices down a week before everything else hit,” Fisher said. “We were more concerned, I would say, about our staff and our staff’s safety to start. Had we not had that phone call, I think that probably my bigger fears would have been in the world of budget and whatnot. But because of having that call, it really set us on that trajectory of just whatever we could do to make sure that our staff and clients were safe and healthy.”
As with any company, adapting to a work-from-home format meant changes in operation. DJs were set up to record from home, new technology was implemented, and the sales team started reaching out to clients more frequently to check in and ask whether the media company could help.
Fisher said the company received quite a few ad cancellations in March and April, leading to a business decline of about 50%. Yet at the same time, everyone was working much harder than normal.
“It was a really interesting dichotomy to see the fact that we were working … more hours quantitatively than we ever have and getting half as many dollars as normal,” Fisher said.
Today, Fisher said Always Mountain Time is at about 85% of what they would normally bill in the summer, which she called manageable. She said that while the Payroll Protection Program made things a bit more comfortable and bridged a gap, one of the hardest decisions was to furlough people.
As a Colorado-based company of 25 employees, Always Mountain Time received between $350,000 and $1 million in Payroll Protection Program funding.
Fisher said she also was thankful for the relationships that were built among the sales team with clients as they helped one another through the shutdown. While local small businesses were some of the first to come off the air, they were also the quickest to come back, she said.
“Those relationships that we’ve built throughout COVID, I know that they’ll stick with us,” Fisher said.
TV8 Station Manager Scott Cowperthwaite said the first concern of the station was to make sure they didn’t panic. He said he saw panic set in for clients who called and canceled everything while others were unsure of what to do and wanted to talk things through.
“It was really having a defined action plan going forward and a commitment to staying open … 100% staffed,” he said.
COVID-19 was a huge disruption to the business model, and Cowperthwaite said the station was forced to get creative with Skype and Zoom interviews and by simplifying the business model on the editorial and advertising side.
In order to keep advertisers, TV8 worked with clients to extend contracts but not send bills for the time being. Cowperthwaite said the team realized there wouldn’t be much revenue in months like April anyway, so they decided it was better to keep clients and extend credit rather than cancel ads.
“We found that not only were we busier, we were building relationships better than we had before,” he said. “So while the money slowed down, the client involvement went up. … We also found that clients and partners were more honest with us than they ever had been.”
Federal payroll protection money helped, as TV8’s parent company, Outside Television, received $350,000 to $1 million to preserve 80 jobs. Even if the money hadn’t come through, Cowperthwaite said the station was committed to staying fully staffed and has not had any layoffs. The cutbacks came in the form of capital investments, he said, as TV stations come with a lot of necessary equipment.
Cowperthwaite attributed the ability to keep employees to a parent company that was well-prepared for economic ups and downs. Today, Cowperthwaite has an optimistic view of the future and thinks the crisis has forced a realignment of local businesses with service, product offerings and pricing improving.
“At the end of the day … you refocus on doing the right thing: … Try to keep your staff on, try to keep your business operational, try to treat your customers fairly, try to promote good stories, try to help people where you can help them,” Cowperthwaite said. “And then a lot of times, the little things you do can make a big difference to people when you’re in the middle of a nutty crisis like this.”
Summit Daily News Publisher Meg Boyer explained that at the onset of the pandemic, the paper and its parent company, Swift Communications, had as many questions as any other business about what would happen. It wasn’t until the end of April that leadership had a clearer idea of how the business would be affected.
“Our first priority was really telling the stories and educating our readers, but we do obviously have a business to run,” Boyer said. “As we went, we adjusted our plan, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Swift Communications — a Nevada-based company with news outlets in Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota and Wisconsin — received $5 million to $10 million in federal payroll funding to retain about 500 employees. Boyer said the program helped the company in the short term with payroll expenses and allowed the company to keep longterm employees on the payroll. The paper also hired temporary employees to help out with the extra workload, filled a reporter vacancy and accomplished projects that had been put off.
The Summit Daily also launched a donation feature to help fund local journalism.
“The outpouring of support for our coverage along with financial support was like a shot of adrenaline to our news staff,” Swift Communications President and COO Bob Brown wrote in an email. “… During this time, the community has sent a message loud and clear: We are essential to a healthy community.”
More than four months into the pandemic, Boyer said the paper is seeing progress but is still in a tough spot financially.
That’s down 50% to 80%, depending on the community, Brown wrote.
And as a company that depends on other businesses succeeding, the paper won’t return to normalcy until area businesses do, as well.
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