ST. LOUIS — The Riverfront Times laid off most of its editorial staff on Wednesday and was suspending publication of its weekly print edition, its editor said.
“We’re hoping that by cutting down this drastically that we’re able to ride this out a little bit better and bring people back just as soon as we can, but it’s such a complete unknown landscape right now,” Editor Doyle Murphy said in an interview.
Murphy said the alt-weekly, founded in 1977, will continue publishing to its website with just two staff members, he and web editor Jaime Lees. He said it was not yet clear when or if the print edition would resume.
The alt-weekly focuses on, and is distributed at, St. Louis’ events, concerts, bars and restaurants. But closings and cancellations due to the global pandemic immediately flattened the publication’s advertising base.
A statement from publisher Chris Keating reflected the publication’s joyously liberal use of blue language. “This is absolutely (expletive) horrible — the worst case scenario,” he said. “Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate this, and we are heartbroken to have to let go of these hardworking and talented people. My hope is that in the very near future, we can go back to business as usual. Until then, our very small but scrappy staff remains committed to St. Louis, our advertisers and to delivering journalism for the city that we love.”
Murphy said he notified five editorial staffers of the news on Wednesday. The five staff members included Liz Miller, Paul Friswold, Danny Wicentowski, Evan Sult and Daniel Hill. In total, seven people were let go by the publication, Murphy wrote on the weekly’s website.
Wicentowski tweeted there had been no word from management before he received a notice that his access to email and the publication’s Facebook site had been removed.
The publication put out what could be its last print edition, at least for a while, on Wednesday, with a cover story about how access to abortions may be a critical issue in the upcoming Missouri gubernatorial race.
The publication also relies on regular freelancers, including food writer Cheryl Baehr. Wednesday’s edition featured her story about a chef preparing boxed lunches for children in need who are unable to get a school lunch during extended school closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a hell of a read,” Murphy said. But he didn’t know if freelancers would be able to continue, either.
The Riverfront Times was founded in 1977 by Ray Hartmann, who, along with co-owner Mark Vittert, sold the newspaper in 1998 to New Times Media. New Times, after a 2006 merger with the chain that owned the Village Voice in New York City and other weeklies, was renamed Village Voice Media. It became a Voice Media property in 2012, when a group of Village Voice Media executives bought the newspaper properties.
In 2015, the publication was purchased by Cleveland-based Euclid Media Group, which had been founded to serve as the parent of several publications, including Cleveland Scene, the San Antonio Current and the Orlando Weekly. The various publications operate in print and online.
Hartmann rejoined the Riverfront Times last year as a contributing columnist. Contacted on Wednesday, he said he hadn’t heard about the layoffs.
“I’m really sorry to hear it,” he said. “It’s like everyone else I’m sorry for. What the RFT is going through is what everyone is going through, and I sure hope it’s temporary.”
Murphy noted the Riverfront Times had weathered hard times for print media.
“If you were going to pick something to devastate alt-weeklies, the coronavirus turns out to be it,” he said. “It’s strange because you can see all these papers collapsing and you think it’s big hedge fund monsters who are gutting the industry. That wasn’t our case. We have good owners. It’s a good small company. We’re doing pretty well until this week.”
He said he was in shock at “the speed this hit everyone. We started the week hoping that we could take some other measures to help avoid this but it just piled up on us.”