By Bruce Frassinelli
More than one-quarter of all U.S. newspapers have shut down since 2004. Trend is expected to continue
Although many newspaper publishers are reluctant to characterize how bad it is, the print business continues to deteriorate, and there does not appear to be many immediate solutions in sight to save this once incredibly healthy medium. Newspaper revenues dropped from $46.2 billion in 2002 to $22.1 billion in 2020, a 46.7% skid.
We are hearing more frequently of “news deserts,” a term that has cropped up only recently in our vocabulary to describe an area of the United States without newspapers. In these areas, officials are held less accountable for what they do, and those who are uninformed in the public because of the lack of local information tend to be less concerned about voting and participating in the political process.
When we trot out the statistics, the enormity of this problem comes into sharp focus: About 50% of counties in our nation have just one newspaper, often a weekly, and more than 6% of counties have no newspaper at all.
More than one-quarter of all U.S. newspapers have shut down since 2004, while those that have survived have cut back on the reach of their circulation areas, reduced the number of days a week that they are home-delivering their product and trying to cut costs wherever they can to save a buck.
Syracuse’s Post-Standard, for example, delivers to customers just three days a week, although the paper is available on newsstands seven days a week.
Oswego’s Palladium-Times curtailed its six-day-a-week delivery to three days during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but restored two days in October 2020.
Along with fewer publication days, newspapers have drastically reduced staff, which, of course, means fewer local news stories and much less coverage of important local news.
For example, The Palladium-Times had the equivalent of 21 full-time employees prior to the pandemic; now it has just 13, but, according to Publisher Jeff Weigand, it is difficult to find employees to fill some of the job openings. He and other publishers also face another challenge: finding suppliers for basics for the production of the newspaper, such as newsprint, ink and plates, and the cost of these commodities is skyrocketing, just like everything else.
New York state is fortunate so far, because there are just a few “news deserts,” but there is no question that coverage is merely a shell of its former vitality. On top of this, deadlines are becoming earlier meaning that customers are not getting nighttime sports scores, reports on local night municipal meetings and anything else that unfolds after about 7 p.m.
To add to this disturbing situation, many chain newspapers are consolidating their printing operations, which means that deadlines will need to be even earlier because of the distance that delivery vehicles must travel with the published product.
The Post-Standard, for example, announced earlier this year that it would not be printing the paper at its local Syracuse plant starting in August of this year. Instead, it is being printed at another Advance company paper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This will mean a 4 hour and 15 minute trip under the best of conditions to cover the 250-mile distance on I-81. Anyone who has made this trip in winter knows how iffy the weather could make the drive. Such a distance increases the instances of late deliveries in addition to earlier deadlines.
As many newspapers have transitioned from print to digital, they have been able to make up just a tiny fraction of the lost revenue through on-site advertising. Many are now using a paywall that requires consumers to pay to see content, whereas before many papers, including The Palladium-Times, were allowing free access to their websites.
The startling result of what has been happening in the industry has been reported by new research from Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, which noted that, on average, two local newspapers in our country fold every week.
The decline of local news has been tied to the significant loss of advertising and circulation and the impressive advances of the internet and social media.
The Medill study found that between late 2019 and May of this year, more than 360 newspapers closed, while since 2005, the nation has lost more than a quarter of its local publications. This trend is expected to continue, and by 2025, researchers predict that the United States will have lost one-third of all of its local papers.
Without the replacement of a local source of news, one-fifth of the nation’s population (about 70 million people) are at risk of not having any authoritative local news source, the study indicated.
The loss of these mainstream news sources will also mean that misinformation will become more prevalent, political polarization will become even more strident than it is already, and trust in the media in general will decrease even below its current unfavorable levels.
Will newspapers disappear altogether? No one whom I spoke to believes it will happen immediately. “A physical paper is desirable,” said Pall-Times Publisher Weigand. “We’ll always see a printed product,” he predicted.
He believes the local angle of coverage will ensure its continued demand by the community. Parents and grandparents want to see their families’ names in the paper. They can’t get that anywhere else.
Help for the newspaper industry might soon be on the way from an unlikely source — the federal government.
Legislation introduced in Washington would, if passed and signed into law, give newspaper operations a substantial shot in the arm to ensure survivability.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would set up three federal tax credits to encourage local media, defined as a local publication where the majority of the readership resides within a 200-mile radius.
The bill provides for a tax credit for subscriptions to a local newspaper, up to $250 a year; a tax credit to encourage local media to hire and pay journalists, worth up to $12,500 a quarter, or $50,000 annually; a tax credit to encourage businesses advertising with local media, up to $5,000 a year. If passed, the legislation would apply over an eight-year period unless its provisions are extended.
Supporters believe that this bill will help a flailing industry that is essential to the American way of life and an industry whose news product is protected by the First Amendment.
Opponents believe that passage of such a bill would breach the separation that is currently the tradition between government and independent media. This would mean that journalists could become beholden to the politicians they are supposed to hold accountable.
Weigand, who supports the legislation that has 30 Democrats and 19 Republicans as co-sponsors, said that when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, was in the Oswego County area recently that he promised to help get the legislation passed this year; however, an industry newsletter predicted just a 2% chance of passage, especially now that it has been stripped from the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act.
Newspaper companies are also looking at another possible revenue infusion through the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would compel online companies such as Google, Facebook and others to pay for content they now use for free from newspapers or their online sites.
The bill, introduced in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, creates a four-year safe harbor from antitrust laws for print, broadcast, or digital news companies to collectively negotiate with online content distributors regarding the terms on which the news companies’ content may be distributed by online content distributors.
One of the co-sponsors of a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives is Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Because of the declining number of newspapers in the land, Nadler said, “The consequences are bad for everyone: fewer local news providers translates to unchecked governmental corruption, corporate misconduct, and widespread misinformation, plus a raft of other consequences for citizens, taxpayers, and our democracy. The free and diverse press needs a level playing field to do its job. This bill simply provides that level playing field, allowing news publishers to fairly negotiate with dominant online platforms. We have worked on a bipartisan and bicameral basis to strengthen and improve the bill over the past year, and I look forward to marking it up when Congress returns in September.”
As you might expect, these online giants are opposed to the bill and are fighting against it vigorously.
The plummeting circulation of newspapers, both national and locally, graphically tell the tale of this precipitous fall from grace. In the period of 2000 until this year, the print circulation of the once largest newspaper in the country, USA Today, dropped from 1.77 million to 159,000, a 91% decline. The Wall Street Journal circulation dropped “only” 60%, from 1.76 million to 697,000.
The New York Times fell 70%, from 1.1 million to 330,000, and The Washington Post dropped 79%, from 762,000 to 159,000.
In an update on New York City’s “Tabloid Wars,” the liberal New York Daily News, which led the conservative New York Post in circulation in 2000 by 261,000, now trails the city’s feisty, Rupert Murdock-owned daily by 91,000. The Daily News sells around 55,000 copies a day; the Post, 146,000.
The Post-Standard circulation of 71,000 also represents a substantial drop from 2000. The Palladium-Times circulation of about 5,500 is roughly half of what it was in 2000.