NewsPub Notes

How Flagpole Survived the Pandemic: With Help From Our Readers

René Shoemaker’s drawing captures an exterior detail of Flagpole’s office.

All the ills that befell Athens with the pandemic chronicled on p. 10 in this issue reverberated throughout Flagpole. The restaurants, bars, shops, events and services in town and on campus are our customers, and we are one of their main means of getting out their messages to tell people what’s going on with their food, drink, merchandise, performances, exhibits and services—from tattoos to yoga to plumbing.

Flagpole reflects Athens, and when the town shuts down, a shadow falls over us. We have a symbiotic relationship with our advertisers and with our abundant, creative culture. The money our advertisers spend with us underwrites our coverage of the arts, the university, the government and the interconnectedness of all our citizens. When our advertisers can’t afford to advertise and the events we cover stop happening, Flagpole has to scramble to survive.

Flagpole, too, is a business, with a payroll to meet, along with rent, utilities, taxes, and the costs of printing and delivering the paper and publishing it on the web. At this time last year, we had the feeling akin to what a pilot must feel when an engine stops. We had already been struggling for years in the post-recession business climate buffeted by intense changes in the whole newspaper industry that had caused the demise of thousands of daily and weekly newspapers all over the country. Last March, we didn’t know if we could last until the end of the month, but we have held on for a year, so far, and we think we can keep on going. Here’s how. 

Our largest expense is our payroll, even though our staff had already gone without raises for a long time when the pandemic hit. But we are glad to say that we have not had to lay anybody off or cut salaries, except the publishers,’ though of course our ad reps’ sales commissions were hard hit. We did lose our editorial lynchpin, Managing Editor Gabe Vodicka, to a UGA job he had applied for just before the pandemic hit, and we did not replace him. That gave us some payroll relief, though it made everything else more difficult and less efficient.

Because our advertising revenues plummeted, and many of the places in our distribution network closed—including, eventually, the university—our circulation went down, and so did our costs for printing.

We thought we were already running a bare-bones operation, but we found ways to shave off some of the bone.

So that’s how we cut expenses. 

Because half the staff has been working from home, we had spaces available to rent out to people needing an away-from-home place to work, so we have been able to generate some income from these sublets.

René Shoemaker René Shoemaker’s drawing captures an exterior detail of Flagpole’s office.

Our ad folks came up with an ingenious idea to help our restaurant customers continue advertising and help us with a steady, though much-reduced, income stream. You’ve seen it and used it: “Curb Your Appetite” began as a stopgap measure and has grown into a popular feature that has helped us all get through this tough year.

And yes, we have received checks twice from the national government’s Payroll Protection Plan, vital help in keeping us afloat and our staff secure. We also got a generous check from the joint Athens-Clarke County/Winterville fund for local businesses. Moreover, our local government and the county health department have used Flagpole for staying in touch with citizens, our local breweries have promoted their frothy products through Flagpole, UGA programs like the Willson Center have kept our readers aware of their many online endeavors, the elections brought in some income, and their aftermath brought congratulatory ads. And to be sure that Athenians know how to make the best of a bad situation, our adult shops have kept their advertising steady.

Still, with all of our own efforts, we could not have survived without the generous financial support of our readers. You have recognized our dire circumstances, and you have come to our rescue. You have dug into your pockets and sent us contributions large, small and in between—some of them so generous they took our breath away. You have saved this outpost of local journalism. Your money has been vital to our survival, but just as much, your encouragement has fortified us and strengthened our will to continue publishing Flagpole. Many of you have set up relatively small but recurring monthly contributions that provide us with a reliable source of ongoing income.

Because of where we were before the pandemic, and considering the prospects for the future, reader support of local journalism will continue to be a necessary element in Flagpole’s ability to continue covering our community. In a later column, we will explore how we can best structure Flagpole to provide the journalism you want—and how you can help assure that we have the resources to be the paper you need.