A number of questions swirled around the Kansas Press Association world this week as extreme measures were taken to try to get a handle on the coronavirus outbreak in Kansas.
Below are answers to questions that were fielded by Emily Bradbury, KPA executive director, and Doug Anstaett, consultant and lobbyist, about what newspapers can do — or not do — in this new environment.
• I’m considering suspending publication for several weeks because of the coronavirus scare. Do I risk my newspaper’s legal status?
We have not received an official ruling or attorney general’s opinion on this, but the law does make exceptions for printing suspensions caused by war, natural disaster or unavoidable accidents. The current situation may, or may not, qualify.
Here is the language:
“Nothing contained in this section shall invalidate the publication in a newspaper which has resumed publication after having suspended publication all or part of the time that the United States has been engaged in war with any foreign nation and six months next following the cessation of hostilities if such newspaper resumes publication in good faith under the same ownership as it had when it suspended publication. Nothing in this section shall invalidate the publication in a newspaper which has simply changed its name or moved its place of publication from one part of the county to another part, or suspended publication on account of fire, flood, strikes, shortages of materials or other unavoidable accidents for not to exceed 10 weeks within the year last preceding the first publication of the legal notice, advertisement or publication. All legal publications heretofore made which otherwise would be valid, that have been made in a newspaper which, on account of flood, fire, strikes, shortages of materials or other unavoidable accident, has suspended publication for a period of not exceeding 10 weeks, are hereby legalized.”
• Can coronavirus spread through newspapers?
The World Health Organization says “the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, traveled and exposed to different conditions and temperatures is also low.”
Hartford Healthcare put it more bluntly: “Don’t worry about deliveries to your house. Coronaviruses don’t last long on objects.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says “it may be possible” for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
• How are we to handle open meetings situations since many of our commissions and councils are meeting digitally?
The Kansas Open Meetings Act is still in force, and Attorney General Derek Schmidt has cautioned agencies to make sure the public has access to the meeting as it happens, not by delayed video or audio. Your newspaper and the public must have real time access.
Anything less is a violation of KOMA.
Click here for a copy of his letter on the subject.
• Will my digital publication suffice for meeting my legal requirement?
Again, we have heard nothing specifically on this issue, but if you cannot have a print edition for reasons out of your control, a digital edition would be advisable to provide continuity. Remember, though, that many of your senior readers don’t have a computer, so they will not be served by this change in publication.
• Are newspapers going to be considered essential services if the state clamps down even harder on business?
Yes. Gov. Laura Kelly, in her Tuesday executive orders, listed media outlet operations as “essential services.”
• I’m thinking about shutting down my newspaper for a few weeks. I’m not sure my community will even miss it?
We couldn’t disagree more. Your community is counting on you.
While we understand your revenue streams have been adversely affected by the current situation, we think this is a time that you will be counted on even more than ever to serve your community.
If at all possible, continue to publish.
• If we lose public notice in newspapers, I’m toast. What’s the latest?
We understand. We dodged a bullet again this year in the Kansas Legislature.
We have supporters at the Statehouse, and we have detractors. What we must all keep in mind is that legislators will be looking at how we respond to this challenge.
If we stop publishing, or go digital only, that will be seen as evidence that we believe that digital is more than just a temporary answer and that we’ve abandoned our arguments about why a printed newspaper is better because it is permanent, can’t be hacked and is much more accessible to our older citizens than digital.
A wholesale move away from publishing a newspaper each day or week and a switch to digital will be detrimental to our long-time arguments for printed public notices.
• All the charges of “fake news” and “newspapers are the enemy of the people” are starting to wear on all of us. What can we do?
Here’s what we suggest:
Keep doing what you’ve always done: cover your communities to the best of your ability.
Accommodate requests from the public that you might have turned down in the past. In other words, news that might not have been printed before may need to be accommodated now. People need to know of each other’s needs.
Your readers will remember what you did during this stressful time, and if you do it right, they’ll reward you for it.
• I’m really scared about the future of small town newspapers. Any advice?
Hang in there. This, too, shall pass, as the saying goes.
We need to emerge on “the other side” of this united and appreciated by our communities.
The only way to do that is to do our best to stay in business and serve to the best of our abilities so we’re still here when the situation improves.
• The rumors persist that because the Kansas adjutant general has been so visible that we are or are going to be under martial law. What are the facts?
Here’s what Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the adjutant general and director of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management had to say: “The National Guard is a unique military component with both a state and federal mission. Our more than 6,500 Guardsmen and women live and work in the communities we serve.
“One of the primary missions of the Kansas National Guard is to protect the health and safety of Kansans.
“Currently, there are seven soldiers and 14 airmen on state active duty in Topeka who are providing logistics support to the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. These soldiers and airmen are supporting the State Emergency Operations Center and the Joint Operations Center in order to prepare to support local authorities.”
In others words, those rumors have no basis in fact. Please help your communities understand this.
• Our advertising has evaporated. What we had sold for a spring sports section, graduation section, the NCAA basketball tournament, is all gone. What do we do to replace that revenue?
Just like you, your advertisers are worried about whether they may survive this crisis.
Some of them — those who depend on large crowds (more than 10 at a time, for instance) won’t have the flexibility that others will. Think about those local businesses that still can function, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, barber and beauty shops and those who serve us with our lawn care and gardening needs to name a few.
Amber Jackson, KPA director of advertisers, reports many papers are still running the same sections. Your seniors are still graduating — they should still be recognized. Spring sports could be changed to a look back at past state champions. One newspaper is still doing the March Madness, but now using 64 greatest moments in sports history.
One of the best ideas that we have heard is asking businesses that have not been affected to pick up the slack for those that have. Those businesses can show how much they support their community by sponsoring ads for those that are being affected.
For instance, ask a big manufacturer or other industry to show its support for the community by sponsoring an ad for all the restaurants and fast food outlets that are offering drive-through or takeout service in your area.
We know that businesses are scared, especially small businesses.
It’s critical to communicate openly with your customers about the status of your operations, what protective measures you’ve implemented, and how they (as customers) will be protected when they visit your business.
Promotions may also help incentivize customers who may be reluctant to patronize your business.
You can get more ideas by clicking here.
Feel free to add your ideas to help others out too.