Lester Black saw the coronavirus pandemic coming, covering the crisis from the epicenter of the original American outbreak.
“It was going really fast here. At the same time, in other parts of the country, it was not even seen as much of a concern at all,” Black explained. “Now the entire country or most of the country is completely locked down.”
He also became one of the first pandemic employment casualties in the U.S., after being laid off from his position as a staff writer for Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger.
“I was working 60 hours a week until the Friday I was laid off covering coronavirus and going to these press conferences and sites and quarantine facilities,” Black said.
Black started writing for The Stranger in 2016 as a columnist before becoming a full-time staff writer in 2018 focusing on Seattle news, cannabis, and the beer industry. He wrote the cover story for the last print edition of the paper before being laid off.
Cover of The Stranger March 11-24, 2020 Edition
Black’s story is not unique. Since the crisis exploded across the United States, at least 10 million people have lost their jobs. But he does represent a troubling trend in at least one industry: local news.
At The Stranger, Black and his colleagues started to see advertising revenue drop off as early as February. Without money coming in, the boost in their web traffic was not enough to keep people on the payroll.
Local news is playing a more vital role than ever before as news consumption rises. While more eyeballs usually mean more revenue for news outlets, an industry reliant on advertising dollars from local businesses struggling to stay open creates a challenging climate for journalists.
“We already were at a place where there was a news crisis in America,” Black said. “Before you knew the word coronavirus, there was a crisis of news in this country; there just is not enough reporters. And now what's left is being cut even further.”
Lester Black (Photo courtesy: Lester Black)
Cuts to local news have left entire communities without local news options. Black is hopeful that the loss of community-based outlets amidst the coronavirus will open people’s eyes to the role local journalists play.
But in the meantime, Black is working to find the new normal despite financial uncertainty. Because he was laid off earlier in the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, he did not face clogged phone lines or a crashing website in applying for unemployment benefits. That does not mean he has had an easier time.
“I was approved for unemployment pretty early on, but I have yet to get any of that money,” Black said. “I'm not too worried because it says I'm approved, but you can't even wait on hold right now. That's how busy their lines are. It just hangs up on you.”
He is hopeful that the enhanced unemployment benefits from the CARES Act will keep him going until he is able to get back on the beat.
“I guess one of the benefits of being a journalist and working in a profession that has really low pay is that when unemployment comes in, you can recoup most of that pay,” he joked.
Like so many people sheltering in place, he is trying to stay busy by cooking, taking his dog on walks and has picked up an unlikely hobby in working out. He’s returning to the roots that pushed him to be a journalist: his passion for writing. But that, like many things right now, is not without challenges.
“One of the unfortunate things about unemployment is that you really have an incentive not to freelance because that money comes out of your unemployment benefits,” Black explained. “On the other side, there's really no one paying freelancers much at all because budgets for reporters are getting cut too.”
So instead, he is working on different types of writing, a book proposal and some essays — passion projects even if they don’t pay.
And as one might expect from a cannabis correspondent, when asked if he was partaking in legal cannabis in Washington, he laughed.
“I guess that was assumed,” Black said. “Because that is certainly happening.”
“One of the good things about this crisis is Washington and most states it seems, are ruling that cannabis is an essential business. So there’s no shortage of pot,” he said.