For as long as I’ve been involved with newspapers, they’ve been dying. Readers started hearing 20 years ago what is now a familiar refrain: “Newspapers are on their way out. They’ll never compete with the internet.”
And yet, here they still are, complete with print iterations. Yes, print circulation numbers are a far cry from where they were in 2000, but my point is that the local newspaper is alive for now, despite the odds and predictions.
This fact is important to the health of communities across America.
Here’s why: newspapers often serve as the only vehicle for accountability and official record keeping in many small and more sizable towns today. I’d like to say all local elected officials run for office with their communities’ well-being in mind. Many whom I’ve covered over the years seem to have done just that. But what about those times when local officials don’t observe proper voting procedure during meetings or they make decisions that seem self-serving? Unless the majority of a town’s population is in attendance at meetings, which I have to say is a very rare occurrence, not many people will know what happened. Enter your local reporter whose job it is to inform the public and follow a beat so they can bring forth details most citizens won’t have time to track down.
The hometown paper is a bit of a strange animal. You’ll usually find it functioning as legal organ of its own county or a neighboring county, and it’s often the oldest business in town. It’s not uncommon to run across a small-town paper well into its second century of continuous publication. It’s part revenue vehicle with its display ads and classifieds, and it’s part community informer and promoter with its hard news items and features. Things can get interesting when hard news (usually crime) involves an advertiser who takes offense at being part of a less-than-savory piece. I’ve seen newspapers run these stories on A1, fully aware they’ll lose ad revenue once the story goes out.
Think about it: What other business model includes scenarios where one department can actually harm the other but is ethically obligated to stay that course?
I know it doesn’t always work out this way, but I’m proud to say all three papers I’ve worked for ran necessary stories no matter how many advertising dollars were on the line. As a community journalist, I had coworkers on the advertising and the editorial side of the building who were aware of their papers’ places in history and were willing to support one another in preserving the integrity of these publications.
Now, the above paragraphs might paint a bit too rosy of a picture when it comes to the future of newspapers. Are they alive? Yes. Are they well? Not really.
In the past decade or so, as giant internet entities like Facebook and Google have picked up an increasing amount of advertising dollars, newspapers’ grasp on that industry has slipped drastically. In a report it published in late 2019 titled “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions,” PEN America stated that 1,800 newspapers have closed their doors since 2004, and that, across the board, papers have cut 47% of newsroom personnel since that time.
We already know that without the local newspaper, we lose accountability of public figures, along with communication among the general population — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, what can the general population do?
Julie Brown, a well-known reporter with the Miami Herald said it as well as I can: Subscribe. Brown told CNN in a recent interview that a newspaper subscription is an investment in a community, and she pointed out that a yearly subscription is relatively inexpensive when compared with services like cable.
I’ve heard other news figures discussing options like funding from nonprofits and licensing fees from social media sites. The bottom line is that newspapers need a shot in the arm. If you’re reading this column, there’s a good chance you already subscribe to your local paper. I’d like to thank you and encourage you to continue.
If you wonder what a small town would look like without a newspaper, a recent piece in The New Yorker by Charles Bethea titled, “What Happens When the News is Gone” cuts a clear — and grim — picture. The good news is that they’re still here. The urgent news is that Americans are going to have to do more to invest in their local news options if we want to see them continue. If we lose our local papers, a point of light goes out in the abyss of the human struggle at communication.
Newspapers don’t always nail their coverage, but I believe they still provide a beacon for informing communities about the events that will directly affect them. The death of the local paper is not inevitable, and we can do something significant to prevent it now before it’s too late.