Dave Obee: How your newspaper is adapting and delivering in difficult times

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on many local businesses, and the Times Colonist is no exception.

We depend on advertising revenue to survive, and with many local retailers closed, that revenue stream has been reduced to a trickle. Being deemed an essential service does not help to pay the bills. We have been losing money every day since the start of the pandemic, and there is no end in sight.

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Many newspapers in North America have announced they are ceasing publication, but that is not a decision we are willing to make.

We believe that the Times Colonist has an important role to play on Vancouver Island, and that it is imperative that we continue to serve. The demand for information is high. We also believe strongly in community service, and in my lifetime, the need for community service and leadership has never been stronger than it is today.

In an attempt to reduce our costs during this temporary downturn, we have applied for federal government relief under two programs — work-sharing and wage subsidies for companies that have seen a sharp drop in revenue.

Starting immediately, and with the support of our two unions, we are introducing a work-share program that will see reduced hours and wages for our staff members. We will continue to publish six days a week and update our website regularly.

We hope to minimize the impact this decision will have on our readers and advertisers, but we ask everyone for understanding as we work through these difficult times.

The alternative to work-sharing would be to lay off a third of our staff. In my opinion, that would end the Times Colonist. Work-sharing will enable us to quickly increase our staffing as the local economy improves.

To be clear, the Times Colonist will not accept government aid any longer than is necessary.

We’ve heard from several companies that their employees are refusing to return to work because they can do just as well with government relief. We have also heard from business owners who say they do not want to advertise at this time because an increase in sales would disqualify them from government aid.

But a newspaper is not like other businesses; we must remain clear of government influence. We need to be objective in our coverage of government matters and of politicians. A newspaper can never become a mouthpiece for the party in power. We should ask tough questions of elected officials, and push them to answer.

A newspaper must be independent and never be perceived as having been compromised. A newspaper should publish a variety of viewpoints. A newspaper must support democracy.

Getting financial aid from the government goes against what we stand for, but at this time, the alternative — closure — is worse. So for the time being, we will swallow our pride for the greater good.

In the past few weeks, as I mentioned, demand for news has been high. We have continued to serve our readers in print and online, even though we have been hard hit financially, and we have faced great logistical challenges.

We knew that we could not stop publishing, so before the pandemic was declared, we took measures to reduce the risk of the virus arriving or spreading in our building. We imposed distancing and made it possible for about three-quarters of our staff members to work outside the office.

Many of the people we would contact for news stories have been exercising social distancing or self-isolation or other COVID-related measures, making it difficult to get information for stories and to get photographs. But every day, we provide fresh new stories for our readers.

We regret the cancellation of the TC10K, and we hope the postponement of the Times Colonist Book Drive does not turn into a cancellation. In the meantime, we have joined with the Victoria Foundation and the Jawl Foundation to create the Rapid Relief Fund, which has raised more than $5.4 million in aid for our community, and we have published heart flags for people to post in their windows. We believe in supporting the community in its time of need.

Part of that support has been ensuring that our newspaper is published six days a week, without a hitch. The arrival of the Times Colonist each day can be a sign of normalcy in an otherwise crazy time, a sign of hope and stability when the world has been turned upside down.

We are an essential part of the community today, as we have been for 161 years. And thanks to sacrifices being made by our staff, we are confident that we will be here for many years to come.

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