If you have access to more than the first two paragraphs of this column, I’m preaching to the choir.
That’s because you are subscribing to the Commonwealth and understand that a quarter or two a day is a small price to pay to have a local newspaper come to your home, your computer or your smartphone at least five days a week.
It’s frightening, though, that this isn’t happening in a lot of cities and towns in this country, where newspapers have either died or shrunk to a shell of their former selves.
According to an Associated Press analysis, being released this weekend, of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, more than 1,400 cities and towns across the United States have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years.
Some were gutted by their corporate owners, who squeezed the life out of them by running off their seasoned, higher-paid staff members and cutting their newsrooms to the bone. Some suffered from causes unique to their locales, such as population losses, economic declines or more newspapers than their markets could support. All of them felt the effects of the steep declines in advertising revenue, the disruptive force of the internet and a resistance among millennials to pay for information.
When the newspaper industry about a decade ago really started to feel the pain of online competition for eyeballs and ad dollars, those of us in the community newspaper industry told ourselves that this was a problem mostly for our bigger brothers in metropolitan areas. The loss of classifieds to Craigslist or Monster.com wasn’t a big deal to small dailies and weeklies because classified advertising wasn’t a big part of their revenue stream anyway. And while the mantra of survival in big-city papers became “going hyper-local,” that was nothing new to community newspapers, for whom covering City Hall, high school sports and church socials has always been their bread and butter.
Community newspapers, though, are just as much at risk now as metros. The plight of these small-market papers may be even more troubling because in most small towns when a newspaper disappears, there’s usually nothing left to fill the void. No one to keep government honest, no one to memorialize the births, marriages and deaths of its citizens, no one to call to expose an injustice, no one to tell you whether the rumor you saw on Facebook is actually true.
It has pained me to watch how much the quality has fallen at several newspapers around Mississippi. I take little joy from visitors to Greenwood telling me how much better the Commonwealth is than what has become of the newspaper in their small town.
The truth is, few of us are confident that we have figured out yet the business strategy that will ensure our future.
Gannett, the owner of the Jackson Clarion Ledger, seems to be determined to kill its print edition. Most days, it has only a handful of staff-generated stories. Most of the reporters and editors who used to make it a first-class publication have been encouraged into early retirement, gone to work in public relations or are pursuing other journalistic endeavors. The paper is stale, running stories in print as much as two days after they’ve appeared online. And it’s jacked its price way up.
I’m not as smart as the people who run the world’s largest newspaper company, but I don’t know how giving people much less and charging much more for it can work.
The Commonwealth has had to make its own changes to adjust to the new business realities. Last year we discontinued the Monday paper — a move that allowed us to eliminate one position in the newsroom but not burn out the rest of our staff. We shifted to mail delivery, which was a success in reducing expenses and complaints, but also cost us subscribers because we no longer had carriers going door-to-door to collect. We offset some of our advertising losses by picking up new printing customers, who had become disgruntled with the service they were getting elsewhere. Overall, we have improved our profitability from what it was a year ago, while working hard not to decrease the quantity and quality of our reporting.
When people complain on Facebook that we don’t allow them to read all of our newspaper for free online without a subscription, I don’t know whether to laugh or get angry. I wonder how they think it benefits us to give away our most precious commodity.
If online advertising were more lucrative, it would make sense to drop our paywall. Other than Facebook and Google, though, everyone else gets peanuts for the eyeballs they can deliver on the Internet. That’s why all-digital newspapers, unless they have foundation money bankrolling them or are in huge markets, are mostly shoestring operations. As traditional newsrooms have shrunk, online alternatives have not come anywhere close to picking up the slack either in manpower or in coverage.
My hope is that if we don’t cut the quality of our journalism at the Commonwealth, we will weather the storm until we can figure out the right balance between print and online.
But it’s not totally in our hands either. Ultimately, a community decides — by subscribing or buying ads — how good a newspaper it wants and how often it wants it.
In some places, communities and newspapers have gone down together, giving up on each other. Greenwood does not have to be one of them.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.