After a pandemic pause, this alt-weekly started publishing in print again

DigBoston stopped publishing for the first time in March. It started again last week.

June 25, 2020

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Since March, my inbox has greeted me each morning with a tip or five about layoffs. Or closures. Or pay cuts.

But this week, my inbox held a teeny, tiny ray of light. Someone emailed to make sure I saw one of the alt-weeklies that stopped publishing because of the pandemic was now back on street corners.

“DEAR READER,” DigBoston tweeted last week, “THE DIG IS BACK IN PRINT AND IN STREET BOXES THIS WEEK.”

DigBoston started publishing in 1999. It has a tiny full-time staff (three in editorial, one in sales), part-time section editors, an army of freelancers, and a revenue model that depends on print advertisers.

That means when Live Nation canceled its concerts, the Dig stopped printing.

“That was it,” said Chris Faraone, editor-in-chief and editorial director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a separate incubator that shares staff with the Dig.

It also means that a small team accustomed to being nimble turned to its extensive freelance network, its nonprofit partner, its community and its alt roots to cover two huge stories that unfolded together — the coronavirus and police brutality.

I asked Faraone to tell me about the last three months.

“We were like everyone else,” he said. “We had no idea what was going to happen.”

BINJ spent more than $10,000 toward pandemic reporting, which went into the Dig, Spare Change News, El Planeta, among others, Faraone said, and launched and its new Neighborhood Media School. The Dig got an Economic Injury Disaster Loan of $150,000.

And the alt stuck to what it does best — covering the community through arts, food, events, comedy and social justice. They added in what all of that means in a pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, the Dig published about 25 pieces a week. During the pandemic, it’s sometimes run 10 stories a day.

“For all we knew, it was the last thing we were ever going to report on,” Faraone said. “What, we’re going to go out not swinging?”

The Dig made some changes, too.

Right as the coronavirus hit, it launched a revamped website. It worked with a company called BlueLena to install and optimize a program that captures emails and converts people to become members. Members have given $15,000 so far. It tried out a virtual comedy show over the weekend. It continued its white label email marketing. Next week, the alt will launch a formal membership campaign, and in August a separate members’ edition will get delivered to people’s homes.

And the alt-weekly was able to start publishing again because of something pretty simple: Staff noticed local car dealers were running ads on TV again and reached out.

“The odds were against independent publications like the Dig being able to make it out of the coronavirus crisis alive,” Faraone told readers in a piece last week. “But thanks to our readers, supporters, contributors, and advertisers who are slowly coming back, we’re still able to deliver, in print and at digboston.com, and are equipped to not only sustain but to cover the ongoing pandemics we face as a community, state, region, and nation.”

Boston’s public radio station laid off 29 people last week. The list I’m keeping nearly has 200 entries of loss and change from around the country. But last Thursday, Faraone went into the office and, for the first time since mid-March, unwrapped a bundle of fresh tabloids.

“It was just nice to be back in print.”

Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.