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John Howell has seen a lot during more than five decades in the news business. He’s the editor and publisher of Beacon Communications, whose best-known newspapers include the Warwick Beacon and the Cranston Herald. But Howell had never seen the bottom suddenly drop out for the small businesses that provide the advertising lifeblood for community newspapers like his.

“We’re not getting those advertising dollars coming in,” he said, “and we’ve had to lay off -- we have a staff of 24 -- we’ve laid off eight people.”

The 78-year-old Howell and his general manager of almost 50 years have taken themselves off the payroll. The Beacon is now publishing in print one day a week rather than two.

Howell said he’s keeping as many reporters as possible, since it’s important to get the news out. But given the depth of the crisis, he expects long-term consequences.

“I don’t think it’s going to go back to the way it was,” Howell said. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be the same. I think you’re going to see in the communities themselves, a number of these small businesses won’t survive. It’s unnerving, no question, because people, I think across the board, are trying to find some solid ground and at this point everything’s a bowl of jelly.”

The media industry has been a bowl of jelly for about 20 years. That’s because the internet eliminated entire categories of newspaper advertising. And U.S. newspapers have cut half their newsroom jobs since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. Media observers predicted the next downturn would make things worse.

We’re seeing that happen now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gannett, the company that owns the Providence Journal, as well as newspapers in Newport, Fall River and New Bedford, is requiring employees to take a one-week unpaid furlough each month for the near future.

ProJo Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg said the paper’s online audience has gone through the roof during the crisis, as the ProJo has made virus-related content available for free on the internet.

He said the newspaper is carrying on its traditional watchdog function, with stories examining state leases for field hospitals and the availability of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers

But ad revenue has fallen off a cliff. Because of that, Rosenberg said, the situation is not sustainable.

“That’s supportable for a short time,” he said. “But if it goes on - and I don’t know what the time frame is - but you can’t go on indefinitely with a large chunk of your revenue having disappeared and think that you can just go on as you have before.”

Even with ongoing cuts over the last 20 years, there’s still a fairly robust media landscape in southern New England.

To cite a few examples, The Boston Globe opened a Providence bureau last year, WPRI-TV (Channel 12) has continued to beef-up its investigative and web-based reporting, and The Public’s Radio has expanded its newsroom.

And independent news sources, ranging from the advocacy reporter Steve Ahlquist to the environmental news site ecoRI, add to the depth and breadth of available information.

Ryan Belmore, the editor and publisher of What’s Up Newport, a Newport-based site, said the pandemic is causing the publication to seek more support from its readers, who've traditionally provided about a quarter of the necessary money. When it comes to revenue, he said, “We have to get more creative than ever."

General manager at The Public’s Radio Torey Malatia said the pandemic is causing revenue losses at the radio station. Despite that, he said, there are no plans for cuts to the newsroom.

And news consumers say Rhode Island reporters are doing a good job, according to the Pew Research Center. Seventy-six percent think stories are covered thoroughly and the news reported accurately. But just 14 percent of those surveyed paid for news in the last year.

This disconnect helps explain why even communities close to Providence, like East Providence and Central Falls, get far less news coverage than in the past. That leaves citizens increasingly in the dark about their local government, in a growing number of communities.

And it raises the question of where the money will come from to sustain journalism into the future.

University of Connecticut journalism professor Mike Stanton, the former head of the Providence Journal’s investigative team, supports expanding public funding for journalism.

“I mean, if we can bail out cruise ships and airlines, what’s more fundamental to the importance of our democracy in times like this than journalism?” Stanton asked.

To critics who see publicly funded media as a conflict, Stanton said the model offered by public radio shows that it does not stand in the way of doing good reporting.

There are efforts to create new models. Perhaps the best known, a startup called the American Journalism Project, is striving to create a national network of nonprofit news sites, funded through philanthropy.

We should note that The Public’s Radio gets about 93 percent of its funding from listeners and groups in southern New England. About 7 percent comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private nonprofit group created by Congress in 1967. And it remains unclear if Congress has the appetite to support new public funding for journalism.

Ian Donnis covers politics and media for The Public’s Radio and writes a politics/media roundup column every Friday. He can be reached at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org.