It’s not a popular thing to say, but journalism may be approaching the point where dedicated news consumers might take a hard look at their local newspaper and—in the interest of better journalism—cancel their subscriptions.
For much of the past week, media pundits have been reiterating their warning calls about the dire fate, and the value, of local news. Fueled by a bleak new study about “the hollowing-out” of local news from PEN America, and prodded by two recent newspaper company merger deals, the pundits have become as agitated as Extinction Rebellion activists. Their worries are buttressed by the newspapers industries’ waning financial numbers.
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Newspaper circulation has fallen almost in half from 1994 highs and advertising revenues have dropped from $65 billion to less than $19 billion in 2016. With dwindling payroll cash to dispense, publishers have cut newsroom employment by about half since 2008, and nearly every newspaper has shrunk its coverage footprint. For example, Peoria Journal Star journalists once reported from 23 counties. Today, just three. Some newspaper chains have reduced their print schedule to three or four days a week. To avert bankruptcy, the McClatchy chain has dropped the Saturday edition from all of its papers. Meanwhile, most newspapers are charging more for less: Between 2008 and 2016, seven-day home delivery subscriptions at 25 big-market newspapers doubled, on average, and weekday single-copy prices tripled.
This collapse hasn’t gone unremarked. According to the New York Times, the newspaper apocalypse has caused a “national crisis.” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan frets about a nation without local newspapers. Academics have charted the expansion of news deserts, communities where no newspaper is published. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton co-frets with Sullivan, as does Brookings Institution research analyst Clara Hendrickson, who has given her study a title—“Local Journalism in Crisis: Why America Must Revive Its Local Newsrooms”— that perfectly sums up the zeitgeist.
Every media guru has an idea to roll back the apocalypse. Nonprofit newspapers. Philanthropists to the rescue. Government subsidies. Ad tech subsidies. But everybody insists that readers—the end users, after all—must subscribe, subscribe, subscribe.
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It’s heresy for a journalist to ask readers to consider dropping their newspaper. Beyond the obvious self-interest, reporters and editors consider a subscription to your local newspaper as a paramount civic duty, a view shared by academics, politicians, and activists. Local reporters hold government and corporations accountable, the refrain goes. They keep an eye on school boards and polluters and their stories boost voter turnout. They uncover corruption. They knit the weave in the social fabric. They foster democracy!
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But when you pay for a newspaper, you’re also making a decision to send money to whoever owns it. And if you really care about local news, you might want to think twice about continuing your subscription to one of the 50-plus dailies operated by Alden Global Capital under the Digital First Media nameplate in Denver, Detroit, Long Beach, San Jose, Boston, St. Paul, and other smaller cities. Good journalism still gets done at these newspapers because reporters care. But less and less of it gets printed, because Alden owner Randall Smith and his right-hand man, Heath Freeman, don’t care about the news.
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Deliberately starving its newsrooms and shriveling its news pages, Alden’s “milk-it business modes” is designed to extract the value of a newspaper over time until the day—poof!—their papers vaporize and Smith and Freeman climb into their Scrooge McDuck vault to count their riches. For example, in the 1990s, the San Jose Mercury News newsroom employed 440. By 2018, Alden had cut its newsroom headcount to 39. At Southern California’s Orange County Register, Alden reduced the newsroom from 180 journalists to about 70 in two years. The newsroom at the Denver Post once stood at 300-strong. Alden has shrunk it to about 75.
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Alden isn’t the only bad moon on the newspaper horizon. At the beginning of the year, Alden bid on the Gannett chain, which forced the company into the arms of the GateHouse Media chain, resulting in a merger that produced the nation’s largest newspaper publisher. Wall Street didn’t much like the deal, cutting about $265 million from the combined companies value ( 7.5 percent of its total expense base) when the deal was announced in August. Both GateHouse and Gannett have experience in cutting staff and quality, and will rely on those skills at the 260-daily strong combined company called Gannett. The front office has pledged to reduce Gannett costs by $300 million a year in the next two years.
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Could a reader strike even be organized? Most newspaper subscribers hail from the senior side of the demographic divide. Seriously habituated to their newspaper, they keep subscribing no matter how flimsy it becomes. There’s also the chance that the strong medicine of a subscriber strike might kill the patients rather than leading to their revivification.
Link to the rest at Politico
PG says canceling your subscription to send a message to the paper’s owners is unlikely to cause the owners to mend their ways. It is more likely to cause additional layoffs. PG suggests the action is primarily virtue-signaling, particularly when you write an article about it.
PG has read and subscribed to newspapers for about as long as he’s had a front door to which the paper could be delivered. Prior to that event, he bought at least two newspapers per day, one for his morning train ride and the other for the evening ride.
That said, a printed newspaper is far from the only way to access quality news and writing. Other than the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, PG is very close to 100% digital for his information needs. When he wants information, he does not pick up a printed document (and on more than a few occasions, he reads the weekend WSJ online instead of in its printed form).
PG suggests that a local newspaper is probably better off going entirely digital as soon as possible. The overhead of a physical newspaper is delivering value to a smaller and smaller group of people every year.