April 6, 2020

After many of the country’s most prominent newspaper companies implemented furloughs, journalists sprung to action to help their colleagues.

Citing hits to advertising revenue because of COVID-19, Gannett, Lee Enterprises and others announced they would subject most of their employees to some form of a pay cut. For many reporters, it meant forced unpaid time off in the form of furloughs. At many news organizations, those furloughs mean a 20% drop in take-home pay.

Although the news came out just a week ago for most of these companies, journalists across the country have established relief programs to help their peers pay rent, cover groceries and keep their lights on.

Paige Cornwell, a reporter at The Seattle Times, said that when she and her friends heard about the cuts, they remembered others who chipped in during hard times at the Seattle newsroom.

“That just meant so much at the time, so I know just a little bit of money can help,” she said. “I started posting on my private Instagram, saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing this fundraiser.’”

She and her friends expected to keep it simple. At first, they used their personal social media and Venmo accounts to help their fellow reporters in Seattle and the Washington state area. But soon the donations were streaming in from other states, and requests for help were, too.

“Georgia, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arizona, all over the place,” she said. “We had no idea it would get this big.”

They switched to using a Gofundme instead of direct Venmo contributions and started using a Google Form for requests. On the form, they ask a few questions: Where are you? How much do you need? What do you need help paying?

Cornwell said one person in Washington chose the $1-$100 option, saying she needed $20 for groceries and $38 to pay her internet bill.

“That to me is one of the sadder parts,” she said. “There are these people in their homes. They’re working hard to provide needed information to so many people, and yet they’re worried about internet or rent.”

The Gofundme and direct Venmo contributions to the fund creators had, at publishing time, raised about $38,000. As of Sunday, 110 people had requested aid, Cornwell said, and they hoped to get $200 to each. Once the fundraising is finished and the aid dispensed, the group plans to share information about where the money went. The names will be redacted, but the group will share locations, amounts of money given and what use the requester listed.

Local journalism organizations have also worked to protect their own, some building from the ground up and some by shifting some existing resources.

The unions of three Virginia newspapers banded together to build a relief fund for journalists in the commonwealth. Called the “Virginia is for Journalists Relief Fund,” it’s a joint project from the Tidewater Media Guild, Timesland Media Guild and Blue Ridge NewsGuild. Its creators are also using a Gofundme. The fund covers reporters, editors, photographers, designers and interns at both unionized and non-unionized papers. The fund will also help Virginia-based freelancers who have worked for local Virginia publications and who are experiencing a reduction in work.

One of the Society of Professional Journalists’ chapters, SPJ Rio Grande in New Mexico, put together a list of emergency funds and project grants available to journalists, SPJ Rio Grande president Karen Coates said in an email.

They’re also helping to review applications for the New Mexico Local News Fund, which has diverted some of its budgeted travel funds for the year to create a new emergency fund offering $750 grants to journalists affected by the coronavirus. That money can be used for anything from rent to equipment, child care and other unexpected expenses.

The relief fund organizers have responded quickly. Gannett announced company-wide furloughs and cost-cutting measures on May 30. The company, which merged with GateHouse Media last year, owns one in six of America’s dailies. Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers in 25 states, made a similar announcement on May 31. The funds sprung up within days.

Gannett and Lee weren’t the first to cut amid a COVID-19-spurred financial downturn. The Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, announced the cut of five days of print and the furlough of non-newsroom staff. And around the country, alt-weeklies are laying off staff and closing. Vice cut pay and some benefits. Maven Media Brands, which operates Sports Illustrated, announced layoffs and salary reductions. Previously, BuzzFeed also cut employee pay.

Catherine Sweeney is a freelance reporter covering COVID-19 for Poynter. You can reach her at catherinejsweeney@gmail.com or @CathJSweeney on Twitter. 

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