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The Coronavirus Is A Big Story. How Maine News Outlets Have Geared Up Despite Financial Challenges

Covering big stories is always a challenge for journalists, but covering the COVID-19 outbreak presents an additional obstacle. That's because news organizations, as creatures of the economy, are suffering financially as business has slowed to a crawl. It's a challenge facing Lisa DeSisto, the chief executive of Masthead Maine, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Maine Sunday Telegram, the Sun Journal, and other daily and weekly newspapers around Maine. DeSisto spoke recently with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.Irwin Gratz: Lisa, news organizations usually, of course, do gear up for big stories like this. Tell us about the extra effort your organization is putting in right now.
Lisa DeSisto: Our team just really jumped into action, especially our editors have been really working around the clock to make sure that we have the latest information. And, as you know, it is just changing so, so rapidly. Our sports reporters, our sports editors have all engaged in covering this. In fact, Mike Lowe, one of our sports reporters, he often is writing the new series that we started, Maine Acts of Kindness. So it's definitely all hands on deck right now.

You know, a lot of reporting, of course, can be done by phone. But for some reporters and photographers, you have to go out and see stuff, don't you? And does that require the company to be taking extra precautions for them?

When the guidance came down last week, that everyone should wear a face cover, and we worked to get the best supplies that we could - as you know, that's a challenge. The photo staff had requested that equipment before, and we're doing our best to provide it to them. But we've also told them that they need to take responsibility for their own health and safety. So their health is more important than putting themselves at risk to get the ultimate shot.

You know, at the same time all of this is happening, many businesses that would have bought advertising have either cut back their work or just stopped. And I'm curious as to whether you have any read yet on how that's affecting the revenues at your organization.
We've been really overwhelmed by the spikes that we've seen in people subscribing to the Press Herald. That circulation revenue is welcome and helps to offset the decline that we've seen in advertising. So as many local businesses are closed, obviously they've stopped advertising. But there are still a number of customers that continue to run with us. It's not as dire as has been reported, and our advertising department is still fully engaged.

I'm curious as to whether it's different at all for some of the weekly newspapers that are part of your organization. In a lot of cases, they distribute in stores that are not open at the moment.

We have the biggest concern for our Mainely Media publications, which are in southern Maine, and also the Forecasters, which are part of the Sun Media Group. So those don't have the circulation revenue to offset that drop in advertising that we have seen. And yes, it's a challenge because many of the places where you would pick them up are closed right now. So refocusing our distribution has been something that we're doing in real time. But also all of those newspapers have e-papers - online replicas - so we've been making sure that we promote those. We're still publishing all of our products. Now admittedly, we have reduced paging to save on newsprint expenses, but also to reflect that, you know, there is no spring sports for Michael Hoffer to report on right now.

A couple of weeks ago, you did place an insert in the Sunday Telegraph that basically kind of laid out the challenge of covering the news at this time. Have you gotten a lot of other comments about that insert from the public?

Yeah. So we started to do something that's a little unconventional, which was to ask for the public's support. So unlike Maine Public, we're not a nonprofit, but we're certainly, like you, vital to the community. So we put out a request through the Press Herald specifically for donations. And well more than 100 different donors have stepped up with donations ranging from $5 to $500. So many of that comes from our subscribers. So we're appreciative that the public is really demonstrating how important we are.

Are any of the federal stimulus programs potentially helpful to you on the business side?

The Payroll Protection Program is one that we have put in our application for, and all signs look like we qualify for that. So that is going to help us keep our entire staff working during that eight-week period.

Lisa DeSisto, chief executive of Masthead Maine, which publishes the MainE Sunday Telegraph, Portland Press Herald, Sun Journal and other daily and weekly newspapers.