Like other businesses, the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette, Forks Forum and other Sound Publishing newspapers on the North Olympic Peninsula have survived a challenging year through adaptation, resilience and hard work.
That was the message of Sound Publishing vice president Terry Ward when he spoke during a Coffee with Colleen Zoom presentation last week to answer the question of how the newspapers had held up during the COVID-19 pandemic health restrictions.
“It was a tough year for us, but we fared better than many of our peers in our industry and many of our peers in Sound Publishing,” Ward said during the presentation.
Strong communities have been the glue that helped the newspapers come through the pandemic lockdown.
“We have community-minded people,” he said, mentioning among other things the donations made to the COVID-19 Relief Fund and to the Peninsula Home Fund to help others in need.
“We are a reflection of the businesses that we serve,” Ward said.
“As we saw businesses begin to lay off folks, we had to do the same thing,” he added.
Last April, Sound Publishing laid off some staffers, furloughed others and placed just about all on reduced hours to counter the cut in revenue.
But at the same time, the company worked to continue to provide strong news coverage, he said.
That included a decision made early on to offer all COVID-19 coverage free of charge online. All stories about the unique coronavirus were placed outside of the paywall so everyone can access them.
“We wanted to make sure that the community at large had access to the information they needed,” Ward said.
During the year, print subscriptions stabilized, Ward said.
“We saw a 60 percent growth in digital subscriptions year to date. At one point it was trending at a 98 percent growth rate,” he said.
“Overall, the total number of subscribers in the last 12 months has grown.
“That’s very different than what we see in our industry at large.”
Advertising did not do as well, he pointed out.
“When businesses can’t be open, they can’t advertise,” Ward said, and revenue also took a hit with fewer festivals on the Peninsula.
“We decided early on in the summer last year to provide some grants to folks so that we could do some advertising match to help them get back on their feet.”
Sound Publishing awarded $300,000 in grants in August last year, reopened the program in January and, between then and March, provided an additional $197,000 in grants to small- and medium-sized businesses.
At the same time, the company also continued in-kind donations for nonprofits, Ward said.
Eventually, furloughed staff were brought back. About three staffers were laid off. Many are still working reduced hours — typically between 32 and 36 hours a week.
Digital ad revenue, however, is very strong, Ward said.
“We really embraced the digital side in the last couple of years, and that has helped a lot of our local businesses during Covid because they have had to pivot to offer more online,” Ward said.
Geo-targeted digital ads “are our best-kept secret” for local and regional businesses, he added.
“We can target the individual right where they’re at.”
Donations from the community for those in need were a highlight of the year.
“As we saw the Covid pandemic start to hit last year, it was suggested we reopen the Peninsula Home Fund, and we relaunched the fund that we typically do between Thanksgiving and the first of the year” as the COVID-19 Relief Fund.
That effort raised more than $392,000.
When the Peninsula Home Fund campaign was launched as usual, it brought in another $300,000.
“So that was about $700,000 in funds that we raised that goes back to the community,” Ward said.
Community members also got involved in bringing back the weekly Forks Forum.
Historically, the PDN has subsidized the Forks Forum by $62,000 a year.
But the West End community wanted its newspaper so badly that it came to support the Forum as a paid publication and ended the year with no financial loss.
“That’s a success story that I like to tell. It’s a testament to the fact that, when a community gets behind a local newspaper, they can make sure that the community not only survives but will thrive as the newspaper thrives.
“Study after study has shown nationwide that a community without a newspaper tends to pay more in the long run,” he said.
Because of a lack of reporting keeping local government accountable, “the cost of everything in the community began to rise,” he said.
“We take what we do seriously,” Ward said. “We have invested back into our publications.”
Examples are the revised print replicas online and the mobile app launched earlier this month.
During the past year, the PDN published more than 2,500 local pieces of by-lined news stories, Ward said.
“The good stories are the ones we really enjoy publishing,” he added, encouraging listeners to contact the PDN with story ideas.