Welcome to the toughest time yet to produce an alternative weekly newspaper.
As the escalating spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus continues its assault on the American status quo — shuttering dining rooms and cancelling events big and small, forcing curfews and other restrictions to the way we live our lives — there’s plenty to report on. Indeed, the succession of updates concerning new confirmed cases and policy changes is almost too much to keep up with.
But at Free Times, like every alt-leaning community paper in this country, we’re also losing half of our lifeblood. We focus much of our print space and additional online content each week on local arts, entertainment and food, publishing features and reviews meant to get you out and enjoying some concert or event, sampling drinks and nibbles at local bars and restaurants, interacting with and being a part of your city.
And while communal activities account for roughly half of what we write about, they’re an even larger part of how we pay for our product.
Advertising — our largest revenue generator by a substantial margin — is taking a big hit. Because the restaurant and bar owners, event venues and organizers who account for a large part of those ads no longer have the cash on hand to afford them.
Not to mention the fact that we also produce our own events, two of which, the March 29 pet adoption celebration Dog Day Afternoon and the April 26 Columbia Food and Wine Festival, have already been postponed.
It’s a difficult moment, and one that makes me exceedingly grateful that Free Times has the backing of The Post and Courier and our mutual parent company, Evening Post Industries. Without such a healthy, forward-thinking newspaper group at our back, we’d be in the same boat as the many alt-weeklies across the country who are struggling through some of their darkest times.
From bigger brands in bigger cities — Seattle’s The Stranger has suspended its print product and laid off 18 staffers — to nearby friends — Asheville’s Mountain Xpress laid off seven last week — the pain is widespread. Jeffrey Billman, editor in chief of Durham’s Indy Week, solicited a list of papers feeling the pinch and collected ways to subscribe or donate to their cause, which I’ll link to in the online version of this column. If you have friends or family who live in those cities, please bug them to throw a little cash to their local paper.
And if you appreciate what Free Times does, you’d be helping in a big way if you chose now as the time to sign up for an online subscription. We’re not going away. But these are still lean times.
As for the paper itself, you can still expect a new edition each Wednesday — barring any further restrictions that make that impossible or impractical. But our content will look a little different for however long this COVID-19 slowdown lasts. And our print editions will likely be a little thinner than usual.
We’ll retool our arts and food coverage as much as we can, emphasizing media and activities you can experience at home — as with this week’s To-Do List of social distancing entertainment options — and exploring the way Columbians of different walks of life are making their way through these trying times.
Last week, local tourism booster Experience Columbia SC put the burnt-orange, block C branding it paints on billboards around the state to powerful use, embossing a vista of the downtown skyline and adjacent river with the word “OVERCOME,” coloring the middle C with its characteristic shade.
We will overcome, dear reader. And we’ll do it together.