Jeff Prince remembers the year he fell in love with alternative weeklies: 1985. He was living in L.A. with his then girlfriend, playing guitar in clubs and trying to find writing gigs, when he started reading L.A. Weekly, a West Coast version of the pioneering New York rag the Village Voice. Born and raised in Fort Worth, Prince had never encountered the combustible mix of political commentary, investigative reporting, and cultural coverage he found in its pages. He still remembers one story in particular, about homeless kids living near the Santa Monica pier.
“It was a glimpse into the lives of these very young people who were homeless and living on the beach—there was no more to it than that,” he recalled. “I had never read anything so raw, real, and poetic in a news publication.” In 2001, Prince got a chance to follow in the footsteps of his alt-weekly heroes when he became a writer at the Fort Worth Weekly, one of dozens of Village Voice/L.A. Weekly imitators that had sprouted up in cities around the country over the previous decades.
Like many alt-weekly writers, Prince did a little bit of everything: hard-hitting investigations like his multipart series on guardianship abuses in Tarrant County’s probate courts; musician profiles; album reviews. He won dozens of awards from the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, and others. And even though he turned sixty last year, Prince kept up with the times—in 2017 he launched a video series called Toast & Jam. In each five-minute episode, the Stetson-wearing Prince interviews a local personality, after which they drink a toast and play a song. “It was just the greatest job,” he said. “You could hold people accountable, but you also got to have fun.”
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Prince speaks in the past tense because, as of last week, he no longer works at the Fort Worth Weekly. On March 25, the newspaper laid off most of its twenty employees, including its three staff writers. It was just the latest in a devastating cascade of coronavirus-related layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts recently announced by Texas media outlets.
“We’re f—— trying to keep the ship afloat in the apocalypse,” said Tim Rogers, the editor of D Magazine, which laid off fifteen employees last week, including editors, designers, sales people, and administrators; all remaining employees are taking salary cuts. Its freelance budget has been eliminated. San Antonio’s long-running alternative newspaper, the Current, laid off ten people and cut everyone else’s salaries. The Houston Press, which became a digital-only operation in 2017, instituted another round of pay cuts and slashed its freelance budget in half. Although it has so far avoided layoffs, the Austin Chronicle has temporarily gone from a weekly print publication to an every-other-week schedule. It has also reduced staff hours by ten to thirty hours per week. Southwest Magazine, the beloved in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines, has closed for good.
Texas dailies are also feeling the pain. On March 30, national newspaper chain Gannett, which owns the Austin American-Statesman, announced companywide furloughs and pay cuts. Newsroom employees making more than $38,000 a year will be required to take one week of unpaid leave each month in April, May, and June. Even before COVID-19, America’s newspapers had been decimated by a decades-long advertising decline. First Craigslist siphoned off classified ads, long a pillar of the newspaper business model. Then, as papers moved online, Facebook and Google swooped in to capture most of their digital advertising dollars. Although digital ad revenue has been growing, it hasn’t made up for the precipitous collapse of print ads.
Even as people turn to news outlets for information about the COVID-19 pandemic, many publications are being buffeted by the same forces shaking the rest of the economy. Advertising has been cut in half nationwide as businesses shed their advertising budgets, and even steeper drops could follow. The Austin Chronicle normally prints between twenty and thirty pages of ads each week; the next issue will have nine and a half pages, mostly free public service announcements, according to publisher Nick Barbaro.
To make up for declining advertising, newspapers and magazines, including Texas Monthly, have started producing live events to generate extra revenue. Now those events are being canceled, the biggest among them South by Southwest, which was cofounded by Barbaro and helps subsidize the Chronicle. The alt-weekly, Barbaro admits, “doesn’t look great on the ledger book.” The San Antonio Current had to postpone two of its biggest annual events, Flavor, which showcases local chefs, and Taco Fest. Texas Monthly‘s official SXSW event was canceled, and like many publications, it’s working to reinvent its live experiences so they can be consumed virtually.
“This particular crisis was just a perfect storm to f— with our business model,” said Current editor in chief Sanford Nowlin. “You could not come up with a worse economic scenario to affect alternative news media in this country. My hope is that people will read this and realize just how fragile some of the news organizations in their community are—we’re reaching out and trying to get folks who read us and enjoy us and value our content to make a contribution.”
The Current, the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer, and the Austin Chronicle have all started soliciting reader donations. The coronavirus crisis may accelerate a national trend away from an advertising-supported model to a reader- and grant-funded model similar to that of the Texas Tribune, the Texas Observer, or public radio. A few of the largest for-profit media companies, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal now get more of their revenue from selling subscriptions (digital and print) than from advertising—a tectonic shift in the media industry. But those marquee names, which have the cachet to attract deep-pocketed readers, remain the exceptions in the newspaper industry.
Anyone looking for a silver lining can point to higher readership across all categories of news media as anxious Americans follow the virus’s spread across the country. Houston Chronicle executive editor Steve Riley said that digital traffic has doubled or even tripled from pre-coronavirus levels, and that he’s seen a significant uptick in digital and print subscriptions. Many news organizations, including the Chronicle, have made some or all of their coronavirus coverage free, as a public service. But they’re hoping that appreciative readers will subscribe anyway. “This is a business, and news isn’t free,” Riley said. “We can’t produce it for free. We need readers to recognize the value of what we’re doing, or we won’t be around that long.”
Kimberley Jones, editor in chief of the Austin Chronicle, said she’s been encouraged by the response to the paper’s appeal for support. “We’ve seen so many donations in the last few weeks. It’s been unbelievably heartwarming. Our readers are signaling that they believe in us, that they think we’re an important part of the community.” Barbaro, the Chronicle publisher, said he’s looking into taking out a small business loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the $2 trillion federal relief package. The loans are forgivable if employers keep their workers on staff.
That bill came too late for Jeff Prince, who has applied for unemployment benefits and is looking for another job. In the meantime, he plans to continue writing stories for the Fort Worth Weekly and producing his Toast & Jam video series—for free. “I’m a journalist to my marrow,” he said. “I can’t help myself.’