That question has been asked, not only in this country, but around the world, in the past few years. In New Orleans, Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville the discussion has taken center stage with the announcement that this fall they will cease publishing a daily print product and will instead be switching to an online publication, with a print product only 3 times per week.
The situation in the above named communities is important to watch. For one, the ownership is the same as The Cleveland Plain Dealer, where reportedly there were meetings recently to quell concerns there. But in general, the daily newspaper revenue-model dilemma is happening across America, including here in the North Country. In Canada similar moves are taking place in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. Newspapers are not going to become extinct, but they are facing the types of challenges they’ve been unaccustomed with dealing.
Toward the end of the last century, daily newspapers enjoyed healthy bottom lines and became popular investment opportunities. Unfortunately, their primary mission was not so much with an eye on future technology investments and research as it was on maximizing the bottom line. They must now face the realization that there is no easy fix that will allow them to maintain their profit margins and at the same time reclaim the lofty status they once enjoyed.
Many daily newspapers blame the downfall on people reading their news online for free while dropping their paid subscription. The revenue model they have been accustomed to operating under was based on 80 percent adverting revenues and 20 percent circulation revenues. As paid subscriptions continue to drop, advertising revenues were affected. In 2005, daily newspapers registered $47 billion in ad revenues and by 2010 they were down to $22.8 billion.
While the dailies try to reposition themselves with paywalls, reduced print days, outsourcing certain tasks while trimming staff and news coverage, not all types of newspapers have abandoned their true mission. About 45 minutes from Asheville, in Yancey County, North Carolina, where the population is less than 18,000, the Yancey County News won two major journalism awards in 2011, its first year of publishing—the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment and the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. The Yancey County News is a weekly, available online for free as well as in print, with a circulation of 1,200 copies and a masthead that lists only two people as staff—husband and wife Jonathan and Susan Austin.
Being a newspaper is not about all the trappings that come with running a large, profitable business. Large corporate or publicly traded companies may not be the best stewards of newspapers in the future as the renowned Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. recently reported. Officials acknowledge their traditional revenue source, the Tampa Bay Times, can no longer finance its parent organization. The institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, has traditionally relied on dividends from the paper, as well as tuition, foundation support and donations. The institute once received dividends—millions annually—from the Tampa Bay Times, but those checks are no longer being cut.
In its raw form a newspaper is still what it has always been about, it’s a partnership with the community it serves. The community provides the financial support while the newspaper holds up its end by being the community watch dog, reporting on hometown events, providing the local merchants with a proven advertising medium and being the hometown cheerleader. Yes, to stay in business you must run a profitable operation or you can’t sustain the effort, but what still counts to the community you serve is providing the platform for publishing local news and useful advertising information that readers find of value and can afford.
This community newspaper has had to face some of the same financial challenges as our area daily counterparts, but while they have released staff recently as a result of outsourcing and cutbacks we’ve added six experienced staff castoffs in recent weeks, with more in the wings. We are continuing to expand our digital offering, which will remain free, and we look to the future with promise and optimism as we continue to live up to our founders motto of being “more than a community newspaper, we’re a community service.” In the end, the real problem lies with the newspaper investors who require profit priority over the informational needs of the local community.
Dan Alexander is publisher and CEO of Denton Publications. He may be reached at email@example.com