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Sunday, May 24, 2020
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Richard Connor: What to say in dire times? Keep going, look to the future

By Richard Connor

One of our loyal readers sent a note asking why I had not written about the coronavirus pandemic – or anything else – for over a month.

First of all, it’s nice to be missed.

Secondly, I have a lot to say, and then again nothing to say amid the confusion that continues to rage about COVID-19. The story line changes from day to day and almost hourly. That makes it difficult to draw conclusions and I do not know any more about this situation than anyone else, other than to say the immediate future looks dire to me.

Third, at the Business Press, we have been working around the clock to provide news coverage from all angles. Our vehicle has been online news on our digital platforms. We have a sizable and loyal following with our twice-daily newsletters and we just unveiled a redesigned and expanded website. We’ve printed one paper in the last month and published two e-editions, which contain all the news and advertising that appears in a printed edition. It’s complete but “not the same” as holding one of our papers. Our subscribers want to hold the paper in their hands and leaf through it.

We’ve also been contemplating a new model for the business because I believe that, like many businesses, large and small, we now live in a different time and a deeply troubled business environment. The economy is not going to snap back.

Daily patterns for businesses, especially small businesses, have been altered forever – some for the better. For instance, a restaurant owner told me he would continue to offer take-out meals even when he reopened his dining room under new state guidelines May 1.

“More families have discovered that it’s nice to eat together at home, just as families did in the 1950s and ’60s, even if the meal has been prepared by a restaurant,” he said.

The oil and gas industry, long a driving force and a staple of the Texas economy, is in a dry hole. Historically, it is a business that bounces back. The bounce might be slower this time.

Airlines, another key economic driver, will not be carrying full loads of passengers for a long time.

Unemployment has soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression.  

And on and on.

What strikes me most, and probably because we are a small business, is this: Despite what has been touted as the greatest economy anyone has seen in many years, the underbelly of the beast has been slowly bleeding for some time. Now it has ruptured. Many, many businesses in this country, like their workers, live paycheck to paycheck.

The virus has exposed a weakness in our economy that was being denied. Margins for many businesses are small. There is little wiggle room for upheaval, even if minor, and this one is major.

Many businesses will never reopen again.

Just because Wall Street is high-rolling does not mean everything is all right.

So all of us will have to adjust and reexamine what our new business model looks like. At the Business Press we will concentrate more on digital and at the same time create opportunities for our readers to get more news and specialized content by paying for it.

The big question is: Will they pay for it?

Journalism, both nationally and locally, has been threatened for many, many years. Citizens like to carp about diminished local and even national news but so far there is no evidence they will pony up and pay for it. A country with fewer journalists and fewer newspapers will find it hard to nourish the historic tradition of a well-informed public – and that poses a threat to democracy.

Finally, Texas and several other states are reopening too fast and too early. The day after the single highest death toll from COVID-19 in Texas, our state began reopening parks and businesses.

Virtually every scientific and medical expert I have seen or heard is predicting that the virus will be worse this coming fall and winter, just as we see with the seasonal flu. The standard “flu” killed 39,000 people in 2019-2020. We already have over 70,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

It is going to get worse before it gets better. I wear a mask and often don gloves. People who do not infuriate me. When the pandemic subsides, when there is more testing and a vaccine, life will fall back into some old and wonderful routines. Until then I am treating this as a life and death matter, expecting the worst. It seems that simple to me.

Why be cavalier about all this? After all, the only thing at risk is your life, or maybe more importantly, someone else’s.

For now, I am trying to practice a motto for a teenage girls’ boarding school I once read about:

“Function in disaster. Finish in style.”

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net