September 2021
Poor Prospects for Local News
Community Newspapers’ Struggle to SurviveThreatens the Future of Local Reporting

The romantic view of the daily newspaper as the clarion of the country’s most thrilling moments (“Yankees Win!”) or the most devastating news (“War Breaks Out!”), or even as cinema’s crusading force, as in “Spotlight,” The Boston Globe’s expose of the Catholic church’s child sex-abuse scandal, has lately lost some of its sheen.

For hundreds of years since the invention of the printing press, the daily newspaper has been the most reliable source of facts. Even as technology began to offer alternatives, like radio and television, print remained the most comprehensive news resource.

In the 2000s the Internet began to change everything. Major daily newspapers had to battle it out to remain relevant and go online to continue to find and capture audiences. According, since 2004 1,800 newspapers have folded. Community newspapers, however, still thrived within their niches — until about five years ago.

According to Al Cross, Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, a seismic shift in advertising spending shook up community newspapers as digital giants like Google and Facebook started using algorithms to track viewers, capture data and lure away local advertising dollars with lower-cost, targeted ads. Additionally, sites like Craigslist took away sizable amounts of classified-advertising revenues, and soon retailers of all stripes had to deal with online competition and apps that took away business and forced them to cut their advertising budgets.

In 2020 the pandemic devastated newspapers along with everyone else. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies reports that during the year 85 newspapers across the country closed, merged or cut their staffs dramatically just as demand for news was increasing. Hit by plunging revenues, businesses cut their ad budgets, sacrificing expensive newspaper ads first.

In Arizona alone, Poynter reports:

  • In April of 2020 Herald/Review Media in Sierra Vista reduced its weekly print frequency from five days to three. In May The Douglas Dispatch in Douglas, The San Pedro Valley News-Sun in Benson and The Arizona Range News in Willcox stopped publishing standalone newspapers and merged into a countywide edition of The Herald/Review. The three still maintain sites online. An editorial position and several office positions were eliminated. Owned by Wick Communications, the papers also implemented temporary furloughs and pay reductions.
  • The Arizona Jewish Post closed in March 2021 after 75 years in operation. Owned by The Jewish Community Federation of Southern Arizona, its only remaining staffer was laid off.
  • Gannett, which owns three newspapers in Arizona, instituted furloughs, cost reductions and buyouts. Nationwide, 500people lost their jobs.
  • Lee Enterprises also chose furloughs and cost-cutting measures, including a 20% pay cut for executives. It owns two newspapers in the state.
  • Community Impact Newspaper, which owns two Arizona publications, laid off 21 people.

The Daily Courier, the newspaper of record for the Prescott area, is one of ten published by the Western News & Info, Inc. chain, largely based in central Arizona. While the chain hasn’t shut down any newspapers, it has cut staff and the number of papers it publishes each week, from seven to five. Former staffers say the family-owned group has been suffering the effects of the digital paradigm shift for years.

Richard Haddad, formerly director of the group’s Internet division and digital content and since 2014 a news director, said he served for nearly 15 years with “amazing” people in the group, but decided to move to a new career due to the stresses of the job, including polarizing politics. He compares the way newspapers were slow to adapt to the “changing media ecosystem” to what happened with the typewriter manufacturing industry.

“Typewriters were a standard fixture inmost offices up to the 1980s,” Haddad wrote in email. “In the face of financial adversity and technological change, some typewriter manufacturers shifted gears faster than others and invested in producing computers. Others hoped their customers would keep using typewriters. Car dealerships and real-estate agencies are facing similar business-model threats because of new online options being offered to consumers. … For newspapers, these online platforms began to capture larger and larger portions of advertising dollars by leveraging targeted user data. Community news outlets could not offer that same level of targeting. This reduction of funding forced smaller local news sources to scale back their reporting efforts or rely on third-party content, which has degraded the quality of both print and online products.” 

Brian Rackham, associate professor of practice for the school of journalism at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said that community newspapers had been on top so long, they didn’t take the threat of digital competitors seriously until it was too late. He said it took a toll on the Flagstaff newspaper, The Arizona Daily Sun, which reduced coverage from seven days a week to six — eliminating the Monday edition— and cut staff. In addition, The Navajo-Hopi Observer has reduced staff, he said.

“We have a great little newspaper and it’s suffered a lot,” Rackham said. “I know because they hire our graduates to cover news.”

He called newspapers “a failing business model” that can’t compete with the efficiency of online operations, but which are subject to websites stealing their content and amplifying it as their own.

“These large media companies that exist on the backs of companies that produce content have to be reckoned with.”

Ken Hedler, who worked at The Daily Courier for more than 10 years, said that being a community reporter can be rewarding, but it’s also a tough job, and people are leaving the business because they’re burned out.

“I miss the interaction with the public, but I don’t miss the stress, the low pay and the toxic work environment,” Hedler said. 

When he retired recently as a reporter, he moved back to Prescott from Longview, Texas. He, too, laments the staff reductions and other budget cuts that newspapers have had to enact to survive, including having photographers write stories at the last paper he worked at and the fact that a lot of news beats were going uncovered.

“Stories aren’t covered; smaller areas aren’t covered; corruption is not covered,” Hedler said.

Newspapers also play a large role in social and political aspects of a community, though some say the Courier’s impact has declined in recent years because it is less involved in events than in the past. A former reporter for the paper, who asked not to be named, noted that the Courier had endorsed a slate of candidates for Prescott Mayor and City Council, but none of them won in the primary. Typically, newspaper endorsements have an outsized influence on the local electorate, but the Courier’s did not, at least not this year. Instead, the paper appeared out of touch with local opinions.

Despite that perception, the Courier remains a critical voice in a growing region like the Quad Cities, and its market penetration, in spite of the cutbacks, is impressive.

Another former reporter for the paper, who asked not to be named noted that the Courier this year endorsed a slate of candidates for Prescott Council, but none of them won in the primary, and the paper seemed out of touch with voters.

Editor Tim Wiederaenders confirmed that the pandemic had hurt operations. “We had layoffs and are still dealing with reduced numbers in the newsroom,” he said. “People frequently ask us when are we going to get our Saturday and Monday papers back. I tell them there are papers that are publishing three days or two days now, or that have gone out of business altogether.”

On the positive side, the Courier print-delivery rate is still the third-highest in the state, and the numbers have held steady in the past two years, said Wiederaenders. Ironically, unlike most community newspapers, digital subscriptions are solid even though the company put up a paywall in 2017.

“We enjoy between two and half and three million page views a month,” Wiederaenders said, and each month its website attracts 250,000-300,000 unique visitors in a county of about 225,000 people. That’s comparable to the rates for many big-city dailies. Print circulation is between 13,000 and 14,000.

Cross said that while advertising once provided 75% of income, newspapers have had to shift costs onto subscribers. While social media, digital sites and radio and TV news may fill some gaps, none is as accurate or as comprehensive as newspapers.

“If not newspapers, then who else is going to tell them what's going on with their local government?” Cross said. “You can't really trust the government to do that, and you can't trust politicians either …. You have to have an independent gatherer and arbiter of facts, and that's what newspapers do. Other news media do it, but nobody does it to the extent that newspapers do. That's really important these days…in a world where people gravitate to sources of information that suit their worldviews ... if that's how people get their information, then how can we function as a democracy? There has to be a common set of facts for people to operate upon.”

NAU’s Rackham advocates for stronger protections for local news coverage by community newspapers, so that their content is valued.

“Local news matters a lot — it just has a bad PR problem right now,” Rackham said, noting that misinformation is more likely to spread online than in a newspaper.

Rackham advocates two ways of ensuring that community newspapers can survive and revive.

“Providing tax credits to people who subscribe to local newspapers could be an option,” Rackham said. “Turning them into nonprofits is another option. People want that local news, but they don’t realize they need to pay for it.”

The costs of paper, ink and distribution hamstring newspapers in competing against websites. Haddad said that eventually newsprint will likely go the way of the dinosaur.

“I think community newspapers will continue to see a gradual decline in print subscribers and eventually — if managed wisely — become 100% online news services and retain their vital, longstanding role as local watchdogs,” Haddad said. “They may still offer some special editions, souvenir or memorial print products, but the days of dropping a printed newspaper on a driveway will eventually meet the fate of the typewriter, where there may be limited demand, but not enough to support theold model.”

Editor’s Perspective

Over the ten years of its existence, 5enses has managed to survive and grow despite the very difficult local-media environment, but we are under no illusion that we are exempt from those challenges.

The pandemic year — years? — brought new urgency to our plans to build our online presence, an expansion of our mission to bring you local information that matters to your life, and slowly but steadily increasing advertiser support. This tells us that what we’re doing is valuable to the community, and gives us confidence in our work. We hope that you see our advertisers as allies in building your own quality of life.

We know, though, that for local reporting the advertising model is dying away, and we have to adapt with that change. Just as the Internet often eliminates the middleman for you in buying things you need, it is reducing the role of the advertiser in bringing you local news at low cost — in our case, no cost.

From my years producing local radio shows I know that public radio is the only sector on the dial that is actively growing, and it operates mostly on the basis of listener subscriptions. We believe that this represents the future for local media as well — readers, listeners and viewers directly supporting the reporters that bring you the trusted information you need for daily life.

We love what we do. Service to the community is our primary motive, not money. But without it we can’t do much.

So I encourage you to think of yourself not as a passive consumer of free information, but as an active partner in creating and distributing local reporting, for both your own benefit and that of your community.

We are currently experimenting with the paid-subscription model, which puts this information into your mailbox both physically and online. Please take a look at our subscription offer online and consider joining us in the effort to inform, inspire and entertain.— Steven Ayres, ed.

Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.

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