South Carolina's biggest paper, The State, owes beleaguered Governor Mark Sanford a big "thank you." Traffic to its Web site is surging. Page views recently soared by 447 percent year-over-year while unique visits skyrocketed by 1,080 percent over the same period in 2008, according to Gary Ward, online editor for The State. Lett estimates that The State has "increased its single-copy draw has increased by 40 percent."
But a juicy story can't protect the newspaper from the industry's harsh economic realities including employee layoffs.
According to Mark Lett, the paper's executive editor, about a half dozen staffers in news and other departments were told Monday that they would lose their jobs. None of those who were laid off were involved in The State''s coverage of state government.
"It's unfortunate," Lett said in an interview with DailyFinance. The State, which has an editorial staff of about 90 people, is increasingly becoming the main source of news about Sanford, who admitted earlier this week in a dramatic press conference that he had an affair with woman from Argentina. Questions are arising about whether Sanford, a conservative Republican considered a potential 2012 presidential candidate, used state funds to visit his mistress. Calls are mounting for him to resign 18 months before his term expires though The State hasn't joined them yet.
Whether the newspaper's surging popularity will benefit its corporate parent McClatchy Co. (MNI) is difficult to say. Papers have had big stories fall in their laps such as a World Series win (Philadelphia Inquirer) or a hotly contested Senate contest (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) and still went bankrupt. Officials from The State would not discuss its finances. Shares of Sacramento-based McClatchy, which trade for about 68 cents, are down more than 90 percent over the past year.
Many media pundits have complained that editorial budget cuts are hampering the media's ability to cover state government.
"Unless your governor is a former movie star or pro wrestler or client of prostitutes, they don't get much – enough – attention," wrote Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine. "And even when it does get covered, there's no obvious and endemic advertising support."
But covering Sanford is not busting The State's editorial budget. About the biggest expense the paper had was sending a reporter to Atlanta to intercept the governor after he returned from visiting his mistress in Argentina. "Really, the story has not been expensive," Lett said.
For now, The State will be able to enjoy its new-found popularity.
Reporters from The State, including Gina Smith who found Sanford at the Atlanta airport and not hiking on The Appalachian Trail, as he had claimed, are regularly appearing on cable news shows. Its scoop of publishing Sanford's torrid emails with his lover have been picked up by media outlets around the world. The paper's journalists had a cordial relationship with Stanford who has a prickly relationship with members of his own party.
"We have known him for a good while," Lett said, adding some readers thought that publishing Sanford's emails was in poor taste. "I don't think anyone takes any joy in the story itself."
Journalists from the paper are getting bombarded with requests from national and international news organizations looking for assistance. It's not easy for The State's reporters to do their jobs while helping other people do theirs.
"They are doing the best they can," he said. "They are swamped."