Local newspapers: Staying alive


According to the Madill School of Journalism (MSJ) at Northwestern University, 2,500 local newspapers have gone under, about one-quarter of all local papers, since 2005.

Also since 2005, according to the Madill School, newsroom reporting has been slashed by 60%, hollowing out the reporting staff of many papers. Evidence of this in Ohio is widespread. One only needs to look at the current versions of the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The MSJ went on to report that newspapers’ revenue nationally dropped from $50 billion in 2006 to $20 billion in 2022. That would explain these catastrophic cuts.

I still subscribe to the digital edition of the Columbus Dispatch because of its proximity to the Statehouse, but I stopped subscribing to its print addition when the number of full-page ads exceeded the number of news pages.

We may be evolving into a nation of news have and have-nots. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) noted recently that 20% of residents in America now live in ”news deserts.” The Gallup-Knight Foundation reported the results of its own polling that 65% of Americans believe local newspapers have the resources and opportunities to report news fairly and accurately.

Here’s what happens in these “news deserts” and semi-deserts. Events that tie people together don’t get reported. Community events, school events, high school sports, plays and musicals, and FFA events get muted. Important reporting related to city council meetings, legislation, elections, community health, bank and sheriff’s sales, local auctions, and county fair events all disappear. Call it journalistic ghosting.

All of this imperiled information are what knit local communities like Hillsboro, Greenfield, Leesburg and Lynchburg together, and when local newspapers disappear, well, it’s easy to see what the distressing and heartbreaking effects can be.

Mobile phones are more than just phones, they are also portable computers. It’s to belabor the obvious to say that mobile phones and the digital environment they inhabit have had a devastating effect on local newspapers. How common a refrain to hear people complain that they can’t live with them, and they can’t live without them. They suck up extraordinary amounts of time, often as the default way to spend distractive and unintentional time. Examples abound: like in your office when you should be focused on a report or solving a problem, in your car when you should be focused on the road, on your favorite Tik Tok routine when you should be listening to whoever it is that’s trying to talk to you.

Mobile phones have become today’s devices for news, fake news, disinformation and misinformation; but they also serve to satisfy short attention spans for those who simply want to surf the news without bothering to dive deeply for more nuanced understandings of events that affect their lives.

That digital sucking sound also takes away from what keeps local newspapers alive, namely advertisements and subscriptions. According to the Pew Research Center: “The total estimated advertising revenue for the newspaper industry in 2020 was $9.6 billion, based on the center’s analysis of financial statements for publicly traded newspaper companies. This is down 24% from 2019.”

Separate from ad revenue, total estimated circulation revenue was $11.1 billion compared with $11.0 billion in that same time period representing the first year that Pew has seen circulation revenue higher than advertising revenue, evidencing the growth in digital subscriptions. When I left the Columbus Dispatch print edition, advertisers took note, yet I kept my digital subscription. But these data points don’t reflect the threatening demise of many local newspapers, and those local survivors left on razor thin margins.

Which brings me to what some local papers, and even many city papers are doing to survive. Cutting staff and cutting print editions save on labor, paper costs, printing ink and postal charges. The effects of these cuttings on the community at large are largely covered above, but there are some innovations afoot that may give some hope to those of us who still relish time spent reading in-depth newsprint stories about what’s happening in our communities over a cup of coffee at the breakfast table or on the couch in the evening.

The Medill Center estimates that roughly 90% of newspapers are commercially based, but a growing number of smaller struggling papers are exploring philanthropy and courting donors who see the value of community newspapers and are interested in eradicating the silence of “news deserts.” Sometimes known as “philanthrojournalism,” or journalism through non-profit organizations. Whatever the mechanisms are that work, it’s in the interest of our nation and local communities to keep local journalism alive and healthy. Good journalism shouldn’t just be the purview of big cities and wealthy states.

The Washington Post’s guiding purpose statement says it all: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

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