As Downtown Shuts Down across the US, City Magazines Confront a Crisis

As Downtown Shuts Down across the US,  City Magazines Confront a Crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces brands to tighten their advertising budgets and organizers to cancel or postpone events, media companies of all sizes are scrambling to account for lost revenue.

In cities across the U.S., a virtual suspension of public life is taking a disastrous toll on alt-weeklies—many of which entered 2020 on unstable financial footing—but it’s also having an acute impact on the nation’s city and regional magazines, who devote much of their pages and resources to guiding readers toward experiences: things to get out and do, see or eat.

Last week, Detroit's Metro Times went to a skeleton team laying off two writers that just started just a few weeks earlier.

On Monday alone, Time Out Group announced it was suspending the print editions of each of its roughly 40 city-specific magazines worldwide, while San Diego Magazine laid off nearly its entire staff, apparently shutting down after more than 70 years as a result of the pandemic, reports the Voice of San Diego, though its owner says he hopes to restart operations after the crisis is over.

“After this has peaked, there will be plenty to report about if, when and how places are coming back,” says Margaret Seiler, managing editor at another city magazine, Portland Monthly. “But those activities that have ground to a halt include a lot of our advertisers, too. So while we’re pivoting to more immediate digital coverage and revamping plans for our sure-to-be-delayed next print issue, we’re also not sure we’ll all still be employed.”

Mike Schaffer, the editor of the D.C.-based monthly Washingtonian, notes that while paid circulation and the diversity of advertisers has afforded the magazine some isolation from the financial issues faced by alt-weeklies, uncertainty remains.

“We’re heading into a really unprecedented economic environment,” says Schaffer. “I don’t think anyone knows what the specific impact on media is going to be, but it’s very reasonable for people to be careful.”

In Dallas, D Magazine online editor Matt Goodman says his team first came to grips with the magnitude of the crisis and the impact it would have on the city about two weeks ago.

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“[Editor-in-chief] Tim Rogers came into work basically yelling about a fire that nobody else could see, saying that we needed to be thinking about this,” says Goodman. “By Tuesday, I think everyone realized that this was going to be pretty disruptive.” 

In the early going, much of D Magazine‘s coverage says Goodman, consisted of updates about what was happening, what was closing, what was being canceled, before transitioning last week into service.

“You’re stuck inside, so what the hell do you do?” he says. “We’re talking to local bartenders and wine shops about stocking your bar, local grocers about stocking your pantry, coming up with ways to cook things at home that you’d generally go out to eat. Basically, just helping our readers acclimate to this new reality.”

At Boston Magazine, senior digital editor Lisa Weidenfeld says the team’s broader mission—improving readers’ quality of life and helping them make informed decisions—hasn’t changed, but that executing it right now means focusing on this period of upheaval and keeping readers informed.

“It would be tone-deaf not to shift our focus right now, but we’ve found there are plenty of ways for us to provide coverage in keeping with our core mission,” she says.

Just because readers aren’t looking up restaurant reviews, for example, doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of stories to tell on the food and drink beat. Similarly, while travel is no longer an option for many, there’s an increased interest in local hikes and other ways to get out while still honoring the parameters of social distancing.

“I really wanted to be super robust in our coverage,” says Washingtonian‘s Schaffer. “As a magazine, we often stay away from things that lots of other people are writing about unless we have a unique scoop or perspective, and I really wanted to get beyond that mindset and just help our readers make sense of this and live their best lives here. All of our editors kind of gravitate toward their own interests and expertise and everyone jumped straight into their stuff. It was a beautiful thing to behold, watching my colleagues work so hard and so fast.”

“We don’t want to just repeat what the Dallas Morning News is doing,” adds Goodman. “They have a lot more resources than we do, so we’re trying to get into the story a little bit more, finding things that keep people aware but also show what’s going on behind the scenes, which is kind of a moving target.”

At Portland Monthly, Seiler points to “stories unfolding behind the hard breaking news,” saying her team is focused on shedding light on some of the needs the shutdown has created and following Fred Rogers’ famous advice to “look for the helpers” in times of crisis, something Schaffer says Washingtonian is focused on as well, highlighting local heroes and the ways people can help others.


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