Lessons so far

The Black Hills Pioneer staff, from left, Seth Sterner, Melissa Barnett, Scott Altstiel, Sara Ramos, Letti Lister, Katie Heggem, Alex Portal, Dawn Hatch, Dennis Knuckles, Jami Albrecht, Paul Baker, Phoebe Caldwell, Jeremy Rosser, Lacey Peterson, Kelly Langer, Corinne Hoard, Lynda March, Sona O’Connell, Nikita DeVoll, Chaz Piekkola, Susan Farghali, Katie Hartnell, Mark Watson, Scott Lister, Chris Lister. Not pictured is Jason Gross, Sharon Mason, Deb Holland, Jaci Conrad Pearson, Wendy Pitlick, Tim Potts, Scott Trimble, Roman James, Aaron Braun, Lisa Lutz, Nate Fox, Nancy Johnson, Jennifer Boese, Madeira Lister, and Cora Tobin. Pioneer photo by Chris Lister

OPINION  — It’s been a tough year for each and every one of us.

There was no playbook. No one had ever done this before. People were scared of the unknown brought on by a global pandemic, and justifiably so. We’ve been at war with a silent killer moving among us, forcing us to participate in the most awful game of Russian roulette. To whom will COVID-19 merely give a cough and a sniffle, and whom does it devastate for months unleashing a metaphorical bomb inside of their body? Or even the ultimate price of death?

We felt the wrath of the unknown here at the newspaper. As soon as it looked like COVID-19 was coming in February, my husband Scott and I were doing our very best to learn as much as we could, as fast as we could about this damn virus. The safety of our employees and customers was paramount for us, and it was a heavy burden. We were constantly asking ourselves if we were doing the right thing? Simultaneously we knew we had to continue to operate the newspaper as close to normal as we could. We fully understand how critical it was and is for our community to get local, factual information in a timely manner. Especially in a literal life and death situation such as this.

We had so many questions.

So early on we read. And we read. Any reliable source we could get our hands on for helpful information. How does the coronavirus transmit? How many people can we keep in the office safely? What do we need to do to ensure the office is virus free? Can it be transmitted on surfaces? How often do we need to have a full air exchange in the building? What do we do if an employee tests positive? Can we allow employees to travel and then come into the office? Can we get enough masks for our employees and our independent contract carriers? Where can we get hand sanitizer? We moved our medically vulnerable to a work-from-home status. We spread out the staff in the office. We limited public access to our office. We furloughed folks we knew we could not keep busy. We had friends making us masks. We bought hand sanitizer by the five-gallon bucket. Our office gets a daily bath of Lysol disinfectant by me or our editor Mark Watson, as we are typically the first two that come into the building. If there ever is such a thing as “Lysol Lung” I fully expect to get it.

We and our co-workers talked to trusted sources. Local doctors and medical professionals, scientists like Dr. John Andrews, governmental agencies, and other newspaper publishers around the state and the country. We reported their advice in the stories on our pages. We implemented their recommendations. All while keeping in mind this was an ever-changing target.

Then came the business of sustaining the newspaper business.

This summer, ad revenue declined by 40% over the previous year. In a business that typically posts single-digit margins, that is a game changer.

• How do we cut expenses without compromising our quality of reporting?

• How do we meet payroll, and can we do this without pay cuts?

• Who do we furlough and for how long?

• Do we have to eliminate positions totally?

• How do we get critical information to as many people as we can, regardless of whether they pay or not? Still working on that one, but we’ve made every COVID-19 story available for free on our website. It’s too important to the overall safety of the community not to offer this service.

• Can we deliver newspapers to our customers safely? YES. To date, there is no recorded transmission of the virus from any paper or cardboard package products.

• How do we continue to cover governmental agencies? Digital technology gets a big thank you for the assist on that one.

• Do we have to cut days of publication? Many daily newspapers across South Dakota and the nation did have to do just that, cut their frequency of publication. So far we have not had to do that, but we know we are not in the clear with this beast yet.

So what have we learned?

Life is short. Be kind to one another.

The COVID-19 virus is the enemy. Not each other.

Knowledge gives you power over the fear of the unknown.

Do not hesitate to speak to people openly and honestly about what you do and do not know. Americans are tough. We can handle the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. This was demonstrated to me several times when we had to have straight-talk sessions with our employees. The more we each understood, the more we realized we had the self-power to avoid this virus and slow the spread.

We are a dedicated group.

Although we have avoided any major outbreak in our office of 30-plus employees, we have still been short-handed at times. And still, we have not missed a single day of publishing. Our entire crew has pulled together, helped each other and each department out, and as a result we have published the paper on time, every single day since this whole thing started.

Be flexible

Science does not care what you believe. It does not care what is convenient. Information and recommendations keep changing as our science and healthcare communities gather more data, and learn more about how this virus behaves. A key for us has been to keep a more flexible attitude and be willing to adjust whenever needed. It is all temporary.

Social media may be the death of all of us.

The anger, mocking, and politization of this health issue that I’ve witnessed on social media was too much at times. The eagerness to spread mis-information and to be completely dismissive of vetted medical and scientific professionals was alarming. I was stunned at the gleeful depth of willful ignorance shown by people I thought I knew. It was disappointing for me on many levels.

Do not have tunnel vision

If you or someone you love have not personally been impacted in a life-altering way by Covid-19, you need to be thankful, not dismissive of its severity. In a six-day period in early December, I had three friends lose a parent and one friend lose a close uncle to this damn virus. That hits home. It’s not a hoax.

Be inspirational

I have witnessed many acts of kindness. People donating to food banks and other charitable causes. Neighbors running errands for those in the community that are more vulnerable. Grocery store employees willing to keep working at stocking shelves, and running the checkout lines to keep the rest of us supplied in necessary food and toiletries. Be sure to stop and thank these folks when you get a chance.

Our local newspaper and the stories we write matter

We are reaching more readers than ever and they are helping finance our work. We have had a handful of complaints, we always do. But they are by far outnumbered by the emails, messages, phone calls, and hand-written notes of appreciation. We have had over 100 folks make contributions to our newspaper on-line. This year will see our subscriptions up more than 25% over 2019.

Our fellow business community supports what we do

With disruptions in nearly every sector of our local economy, our Ad Dept. had to get creative on how to help businesses promote themselves in our products. By thinking outside the box they developed and launched 35 new special sections to help make up for revenue lost to canceled events, and to help find new ways for small businesses to reach new and current customers. Nearly every one of our regular customers stayed with us, and we added a lot of new businesses to our pages. Their support was a life saver to our newspaper.

It is not over yet

We must stay vigilant, and each do our part to reduce the spread of Covid-19.  Wash your hands, avoid large groups inside, and wear a mask when around others. Keep supporting local business at every opportunity. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as recent vaccines have given us hope.

Be well,

Letti Lister, Publisher, Black Hills Pioneer

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