Unfortunately, there's a lot to talk about.
Last week, a newspaper holding company with an unlikely name, Tronc, provided more evidence that local newspapers are facing tough times.
Tronc stands for Tribune Online Content, and it is the country's third-largest newspaper publisher (behind Gannett and McClatchy) and owns 11 daily newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Orlando Sentinel. (In June, Tronc sold off the LA Times for $500M.), And last week, Tronc fired 50 percent of the staff of the New York Daily News and staffers at its other papers due to what its CEO said were because "As a public company, we have a fiduciary obligation to balance the interests of all of our constituents: shareholders, employees, readers and community."
Death by a Thousand Cuts?
An Axios article on the topic quoted The Washington Post's Paul Farhi as noting "the NYDN employed 400 journalists in 1988. After a layoff last year, it will 'have a newsroom staff of just 45, according to people at the paper.'"
It's hard to imagine even the Daily News -- perennially described as "scrappy" -- being able to cover the city that never sleeps with just 45 reporters. Or how the Daily News can survive against the New York Post, its longtime tabloid rival.
A number of journalism experts say problems started before Tronc acquired the Daily News (for only $1 in 2017 -- basically the newsstand cost of a single copy of the paper in 2016 -- along with an assumption of liabilities and 49 percent stake in property where the Daily News' printing plant is located. But things got worse after Tronc's purchase, described as ownership without strategy and that Tronc made (and continues to do so) by "making the product worse while making the public pay more."
Problems Facing Local Newspapers
Problems Facing Local Newspapers
in Tronc's case, some blame incompetent owners who took on too much debt through acquisitions and consolidation. This is a real concern as media giants are merging (AT&T-Time Warner; Disney-Fox, and Sinclair-Tribune -- the former parent company of what became Tronc), with the possibility that the acquiring companies may be taking on too much debt.
Beyond possibly incompetent owners, the main threats to local newspapers include:
- Falling ad rates: The common saying is that publishers are replacing print dollars with digital dimes because online ads generate a fraction of the fees charged for print ads. So even if a newspaper retails the same number of advertisers who purchase the same number of ads, digital ad rates are much lower so newspaper revenue will drop. For example:
- For example, according to the MinnPost, a nonprofit local news site, "In 2011, newspapers lost about $2.1 billion in print advertising. Meanwhile, their digital advertising grew by about $207 million. In other words, they lost $10 in print ads for every new dollar of digital ad money.
The real problem is that local newspapers serve as a check-and-balance of local government and we need local oversight of government.
Some cities are seeing the rise of nonprofit news sites (like MinnPost) and others. But some are very small operations; and you can't effectively cover a big city with just two reporters/bloggers. (In some cases, these bloggers are not much more than citizen journalists, without real journalism experience.)
So what's the solution?
In an article entitled, "Who suffers when local news disappears," The Cumbia Journalism Review says, given declining resources, the quality of local papers will decline so much that:
At some point not terribly far in the future, even those of us who believe powerfully in the need for a vibrant local news landscape are going to be hard pressed to make a case that many of these outlets should be saved.For much of this decade, no one has been able to develop a true workable solution. Readers' relationships with their local papers and with journalism in general has changed. And, as with the coal industry, there's no turning things back to how things used to be.
Certainly newspapers -- as with all news operations -- need to figure a way to ensure they publish quality journalism, coverage that is credible and compelling, and available across different channels (print, online, text, video, social). But they also must find ways to charge for access. A number of top news sites provide access to a limited number of articles per month, so when readers hit the limit, they may be inclined to subscribe. Right now, readers seem to wait out until the next month.
Sustainable local newspapers is important for journalists and good government. But it's also important for marketers, who need credible vehicles through which to communicate their messages.