Today’s edition of The MV Times follows a six-week suspension of print publication. In mid-March (seems like five years ago), faced with the almost unfathomable uncertainties of Island life following the arrival of COVID-19, we rethought our traditional weekly newspaper model to account for a range of safety issues, as well as the financial effects of local advertising all but disappearing, and temporarily switched to digital-only publication via mvtimes.com and The Minute. The refocusing of resources and the intensity of our staff’s efforts helped assure a wide-open flow of news for what may be the news story of a lifetime. We think that by suspending print for a few weeks we did the prudent, if painful, thing.
Virtually all newspapers are under mindless assault by social media companies amassing huge audiences (and profits) by facilitating chatty forms of entertainment and then selling their viewers’ eyeballs to advertisers. In the process, Facebook and the like leave the journalism, the actual substance of community news, out of the equation. As we and other news organizations have been fighting our way out of our particular business nightmare, COVID-19 completely undermined the health, social, and economic lives of our communities, and our business has further suffered, along with those of our friends and neighbors.
On the positive side, our hiatus has allowed us to see in real time the effectiveness of digital-only reporting — a revelation, because we had no way to anticipate how well that would work out. While near-exhausting even for our nimble staff, the immediacy and instantaneous quality of web news can be stunning, especially when a story — really the only story — changes by the minute. In response, traffic at mvtimes.com more than doubled. Both our print and web subscriptions continued to grow. We extended our Minute newsletter to seven days a week, and its subscription rolls increased by half. The past six weeks have confirmed that Vineyarders, on the Island and off, want critical local news, 24/7. And some advertisers, those less immediately affected and perhaps most sensitive to the impacts of lost ads on our revenue as we covered the pandemic, hung in with us, and we greatly appreciate it.
Notwithstanding that we both learned and accomplished a great deal, community newspapers like The Times belong in hard-copy print. Physical newspapers are immersive — readers should experience print papers in all dimensions, discovering one story or one ad while reading another, and they should return to our physical newspaper for different bits of information, or for confirmation of what they have recalled or heard, all week long. If we do our job right, our readers will agree.
From our point of view as publishers, the most difficult decision we’ve made in 25 years has been the one to suspend printing, even knowing that it would be temporary. Just as we imagine has been the case for most of you, we had no way to imagine what a pandemic would actually look like as it approached our community — terrifying to await, muted (so far) in its effect on most of us, still threatening as we try to urge it out the door.
Starting up again in print is of course an exercise in flying blind, in this case leavened by very cautious optimism. We are, though, the Islanders’ newspaper; we believe in the Vineyard community, we believe in the importance of the community journalism our staff practice, and we think that you have confidence in us. We know that we all need patience; we want to be there with you as the lights come back on.
Barbara and Peter Oberfest, publishers