I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Any eighth-grader can launch an information and opinion website from a computer in the corner of his bedroom. But it takes financial backing, wise management, committed, professional writers and editors and a printing press to produce a credible newspaper.
If the strength and holding-power stand out in the printed word – if their printed paper is what makes them unique in their market – why are so many publishers betting their future on their website?
Sure, any wise publisher is going to have a website presence, but he’s going to stake his future on his printed publication.
Family-owned neighborhood groceries, once a staple, were replaced by modern supermarkets the middle of the last century. But those neighborhood grocers were eventually replaced by today’s convenience stores.
The same will be true of the hometown paper. The newspaper of today, attempting to be all things to all people, will eventually evolve into tomorrow’s most read, most trusted local news source. Newspapers will, more than ever, be the glue that holds thriving, changing communities together.
But to do so, community newspapers must think local and be local. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, hometown papers were still reporting who visited who and what was going on at the school, all the local churches and the Odd Fellow’s hall. Community papers concentrated on local names and happenings never covered by outside media. They concentrated on the details of the American Legion Baseball game, who entered the hospital and the success of the summer rec program.
Newspapers must still provide the much-appreciated local news to survive and eventually grow. Print can do local information better than the radio station. Local radio has neither the air time nor reporting staff to report much beyond the headline of any story.
Local bloggers, independent websites and other digital formats never reach the broad audience of a subscription-based or free distribution newspaper.
And independent websites are often not credible, choosing to share large doses of opinion with scraps of both worthy information and uninvestigated misinformation.
Finally, a newspaper covers the entire life of the community and clearly reports all that is important to the local reader. The neatly edited and attractively presented material, all in one easy-to-hold publication, makes keeping informed simple. That same reader would have to check a dozen local, independent, websites to even begin to obtain such knowledge and wisdom.
Content is everything. The number of editorial pages are not as important as the quality and originality of the stories printed on those pages. In order to survive today’s cultural change, newspapers have to deliver (get the double meaning of deliver?) news and information the reader wants and might share around the watercoolor that day.
But we have a difficult time ahead of us while waiting for others to recognize the need for, and importance of, the community paper. Newspaper circulation across the nation continues to decline. But many papers are doing so because the management is driving them in that direction, believing they can cut costs and increase reader numbers with a stronger on-line presence.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, paid circulation was down 8% weekdays and 9% Sundays this past year.
Due perhaps to most papers having increased subscription and single-copy pricing, circulation revenue has held steady this past year. But unfortunately, display advertising dollars were down 13%.
Meanwhile, digital ad revenue has grown exponentially, but the majority of all profits have gone to Facebook and Goggle and not much to newspaper publishers, says the Pew report. What small increase there has been in local digital revenue has not been nearly enough to cover the loss of once empowered print display income.
Most important, however, as we view the continued importance of the printing press, traffic to all websites has seemed to level off. Individual time spent on these websites has declined as well. The average number of minutes per visit to digital news sites is down 16 percent since 2016, says the Pew report.
So, yes, current times are difficult. The culture is changing. But there is still a strong future for the printed word. Newspapers are not dead and need to be in communities where someone is championing their value and producing an interesting, informative and worthwhile publication.