RFT Lays Off 7 as Coronavirus Slams St. Louis Economy

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click to enlarge The latest print edition of the Riverfront Times w/ an awesome story by Liz Miller and another compelling cover design by Evan Sult. - EVAN SULT
The latest print edition of the Riverfront Times w/ an awesome story by Liz Miller and another compelling cover design by Evan Sult.

The coronavirus started to really chew up St. Louis less than a week ago.

The trickle of canceled concerts and postponed events such as the city’s two St. Patrick’s Day parades had been concerning. And then elected officials (rightly) set restrictions on the number of people who could get together, and then they tightened those restrictions, and then they tightened them again as more people continued to test positive for COVID-19.

By Sunday, there was a wave of bars and restaurants announcing plans to close temporarily or shift to takeout and curbside pickup. They were doing their civic duty to keep COVID-19 from spreading while also hoping to somehow survive the financial catastrophe of losing all or most of their customers nearly overnight.

The RFT’s staff worked hard to cover those stories, even as we felt the creeping dread for our own business. It turns out, COVID-19 also makes for a nearly perfect weapon against alternative weeklies. Across the country, papers are announcing salary cuts, layoffs or anything they can imagine to keep the lights on.

That’s where we are today. We laid off nearly our entire staff this morning with the hope that if we act now, we can rebuild and bring them back later. It’s horrible and unfair, and it’s bad for St. Louis. I have worked in a lot of newsrooms, and this is the first where I have liked every single person on staff. They are smart and funny and talented in ways that make me jealous. We’re a better city when they are at work.

But the amazing work of this staff has not been a shield against a pandemic, and that’s the frustrating part. We make most of our money by selling ads to the same restaurants, bars and other small businesses that are dealing with an economic storm that few living beings have witnessed. We also throw big events (yes, highlighting that same, suddenly devastated industry), so you can guess how all of this is going. We could see it happening, but the speed has been stunning. One day, you’re a profitable newspaper, doing better every year; the next, almost all of your ad revenue is wiped out with no clear sign of when it will return.

If you’d like to know how we’re feeling about COVID-19 and the effect on our staff, here is what RFT publisher Chris Keating has to say: “This is absolutely fucking horrible — the worst-case scenario. Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate this, and we are heartbroken to have to let go of these hardworking and talented people. My hope is that in the very near future, we can go back to business as usual. Until then, our very small but scrappy staff remains committed to St. Louis, our advertisers, and to delivering journalism for the city that we love.”

It sucks. It does. But alt-weeklies have always been the underdog, and the RFT is one of the best in the country. Even after staffers learned the news today, they have continued to forward story tips and text me with ways they can help. They’re so dedicated to this city and telling its stories that I have been in tears off and on all morning.

So we’re going to take the example of their tenacity and talent, and we’re going to continue to cover the Metro, eagerly anticipating the day they can come back to write those stories, too.

We published a newspaper today, and it’s a good one. We won’t have a print edition next week, but we’ll be online every day, and hopefully we will be back on newsstands — and in thriving bars, coffee shops and restaurants — soon.

Just one more thing: Fuck COVID-19 and wash your hands.

— Doyle Murphy is editor in chief of the Riverfront Times.

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