When 42-year-old Mount Kisco resident Adam Stone founded Examiner Media in 2007, the prospects for local print was bleak and getting bleaker. When the global financial crisis hit a year later, and every day brought news of long-established publications across the country shutting their presses, Stone doubled down with the launch of his second newspaper, the Putnam Examiner.
So the unprecedented headwinds facing Examiner Media, which now has four publications, in 2020 were nothing new for Stone.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the company was already dealing with challenging terrain, Stone says. With its newspapers distributed for free, Examiner Media counts on ad money for its revenue and when COVID-19 shuttered businesses and wrecked the economy, that revenue dried up.
“It was already a challenging time,” Stone explains. “Once Covid became a crisis in March, it became immediately clear that the status quo would be totally unsustainable, and I’d have to make some serious changes.”
A year later, Examiner Media not only survived the pandemic crisis but emerged with a stronger digital operation and a more sustainable revenue model, Stone says.
But in March 2020, as Westchester County emerged as ground zero in New York’s Covid outbreak, the paper’s survival was far from a sure thing. It required Stone finding the revenue to stay afloat in the worst economy in a century and restructuring his business on the fly, while the editorial team covered a one-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
The New Normal
As the impact of the global pandemic began to become clear, Stone recalls, his immediate priority was getting through the drop in revenues and surrounding uncertainty. To these ends, he took several steps to supplement the publications’ revenues.
In March, Stone applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, an initiative to support local news. The papers also received a grant from Google as well as a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, established during the first COVID relief bill.
Finally, Stone launched a community fundraiser to give readers the chance to support the publications, partnering with the non-profit Local Media Foundation. He calls this decision one of the toughest he had to make.
“It was a very humbling thing, to go out there, hat in hand and say, ‘We are dealing with this existential crisis for the business,” Stone says. “But it dawned on me that it would have been very selfish to let the Covid situation just wash The Examiner away. There were employees counting on us, but also readers.”
Within 10 days he had raised more than $15,000, mostly through small donations. In the end, the papers received more than $30,000 in support from roughly 400 donors, most chipping in $100 or less.
“There was just this outpouring of love for what we did,” Stone says. “People were really worried that we would go away, and they wanted to play their part in helping to rescue us.”
Stone’s team of reporters and editors, meanwhile, faced their own set of challenges. The changes at the paper, including a greater amount of shared content across the four publications, came as the pandemic became an all-consuming focus while upending traditional reporting approaches.
“In the first three months, it was all Covid, all the time,” says Martin Wilbur, the editor-in-chief of The Examiner. “Whether it was how the local funeral homes were handling their business and dealing with families who can’t have a funeral or a viewing, or local businesses that were on the brink or couldn’t get their PPP loans.”
In the months following the shutdown, Wilbur estimates that 95 percent of stories were related to the pandemic–a product of both the extensive fallout of the virus and the fact that virtually all community events, a staple of local news coverage, had been cancelled. Wilbur would spend that Spring sitting in front of his computer, making phone calls and tuning into virtual meetings and events.
“There have been some days where I am on the phone for six, seven, eight hours, with only maybe five minutes to run downstairs to get a sandwich,” he says. “Between incessant phone calling and a lot of Zooming and a lot of watching of meetings and press conferences, it was a change, obviously.”
Wilbur, Stone, and editor Rick Pezzullo began holding frequent conference calls to coordinate coverage. Reporters began to increasingly focus on posting up-to-date news online.
“We are traditionally a weekly community newspaper, but we became a daily in a sense,” says Stone.
Readers depended on the Examiner papers more than ever as their local news outlet amid the crisis. Online readership has grown dramatically, Stone says, in part due to an added emphasis on the digital operations.
By the second half of 2020, Stone says, the publication had turned the corner. Six months after he was forced to make layoffs to stay afloat, Stone was able to start hiring again, bringing back Anna Young, as the company’s digital editor in September. Sports editor and columnist Ray Gallagher resumed his regular writing duties as high school sports returned.
“The resurgence of Examiner Media in the aftermath of COVID-19 is a testament to the insatiable thirst people have for professionally-reported local news,” Stone says. “I’m grateful we came out the other side of this crisis a more nimble, more modern local news outlet, benefiting from a stronger, sturdier business model.”
Stone has two daughters, 14-year-old Maddie, and Mia, who is turning seven in April. While the publisher is used to working from home, his daughters and his wife, Alyson, a schoolteacher, were suddenly home with him (and Daisy, a six-year-old Maltese). “It’s been a bit of an adventure, everybody carving out their space and figuring out how to get their work done and schoolwork without running into each other,” he says. “But by and large we’ve figured out how to do it successfully, and I really love it. It’s really great to be able to go downstairs, get a cup of coffee and have my family right there.”
The Stone family passed much of the time during the height of the pandemic as most Americans did: playing video games and binge-watching Tiger King.
“Thankfully, last Christmas we had given the girls the Nintendo Switch as their joint Christmas present,” Alyson Stone says. “Little did we know it was going to become the savior in our home. So we played an awful lot of Mario.”