EDITORIAL: How’re you doing?

AS IF THE FLOOD of information about the pandemic weren’t disorienting enough, suddenly having a little spare time on my hands made me more than a little confused. Mental health caregivers might call my condition anxiety. Well, yeah.

These jitters aren’t only from overexposure to the charts of illness and death that thrill the national media. And I understand conflicting advice about the best way to voluntarily quarantine yourself is bound to happen at a time like this. We need to know what we’re up against, and if the rules on best behaviors can seem fuzzy, it’s because we know so little about this particular coronavirus.

Every week for the last 11 years I edited and coordinated production of The Columbia Paper. For those 11 years our small, talented team wrangled thousands of words and scores of images into a snapshot of life in Columbia County. Most weeks we were only seconds shy of missing our press deadline, flirting with a disaster that threatened paychecks for the 20-or-so people it takes to create this community newspaper each week. And as soon as one paper was done we started on the next.

Then last week I decided to temporarily suspend publication. COVID-19 threatened the safety of our staff and undermined our ad sales.

The decision left me facing a prolonged period of uncertainty. That triggered my anxiety.

During this emergency the State of New York has designated “media companies” an essential service. And while it’s true that we don’t have to publish a newspaper at the moment, we still have our website, www.columbiapaper.com and our Facebook page. Thousands of users visit the website every week, and the numbers are going up. This is an opportunity we didn’t ask for but cannot ignore.

First, let’s state the obvious: At This Time There Is No Fee To Read Anything On Our Website. No password needed.

Second, people read community newspapers for local news about schools, what municipal officials say they’re doing with taxpayers’ money and the generous, brave or goofy things that our neighbors do. You wouldn’t expect news of a pandemic to be local news until–by definition–it is.

While the larger story of the COVID-19 pandemic is widely covered on national news outlets, the options in the county are fewer. The Columbia County Department of Health publishes daily updates on number and status of patients being treated in the county and we, like other local sites, post them online. In addition, Matt Murell, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, issues notices that address administrative aspects of the county’s response to the pandemic. We publish them, too. And we have been publishing original stories about how towns, villages and school districts are coping.

We’ll continue local reporting online as long as we can find ways to support it. The advertising business model doesn’t work for local news websites. Google and Facebook have gobbled up almost all the local ad business, leaving very little for the local news operations like ours despite our connection to local consumers.

At the same time, the reaction to the pandemic has opened up some intriguing opportunities, including temporary funding from the federal government as part of the $2-trillion coronavirus relief law adopted last week. One part of that law would support rehiring people who lost their jobs when I put the print edition on hold. There are also new grants available, including funds from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. And we have a lot of subscribers and a growing backlog of folks who want to begin a print edition subscription but whose checks we won’t cash until we know when we can resume printing.

A newspaper has a beginning, middle and end; online coverage is an endless cycle even when there’s not much new in the news. As this is written Wednesday, April 1, there are 4 news bulletins and a news story on our homepage, all of them about local aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time this is posted Thursday, April 2, some of those news items will be archived and others, quite likely on the same subject but with more current information.

I don’t recommend the news business as an antidote for anxiety. All I can report is that editing coverage of a pandemic while planning for the future of The Columbia Paper, combined with remembering to wash my hands frequently and maintain at least a 6’ social distance has left me with very little time to worry.

P.S.: Bikers and Joggers. You’re spreading droplets into the air. So please leave EXTRA SPACE between you and others!

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