Newspapers Face Existential Crisis: Support Yours

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When you go to the website of many community newspapers, including my hometown newspaper, a pop-up box appears. It says, “Support local journalism. Donate now.” A nonprofit organization has been set up to allow one to make tax-deductible donations to help newspapers continue covering the COVID-19 crisis.

It might seem odd to donate to keep a newspaper’s coverage continuing, especially if one already pays for a subscription, as I do. As long as the presses keep rolling, and carriers continue to deliver a print product, I will happily pay to walk out in the morning, pick up the paper that our reliable carrier has placed on top of our brick mailbox (to keep if free from dogs and the sprinkler system), and head inside to read it.

The national shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in mid-March, and only recently has begun lifting, has clobbered the bottom lines of print newspapers. They were already struggling, with double-digit losses in advertising revenue year after year, greatly reduced newsrooms, and a shrinking reader base. Before this pandemic hit, at least 84 newspapers in Texas had either closed outright or merged with a sister paper in the past decade — a drop in titles of 17 percent. At least 30 Texas counties have no local newspaper. The city of Commerce, with 9,000 residents and home to Texas A&M-Commerce, lost its hometown newspaper last year. Right as the world shut down, I was researching what I was calling, “The Growing Texas Newspaper Desert,” in hopes of pitching it as a magazine piece.

I stopped that research because the desert is going to spread in coming months. Our nation’s democracy — already at risk from growing polarization and blatant disregard of its most cherished institutions — will suffer greatly without local newspapers and other legitimate journalism sources — New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, Texas Tribune, Pro Publica, to name a few — there to serve as watchdogs.

As most of you know, I worked for newspapers for more than 40 years, starting at the Longview News-Journal as a paperboy at age 13. For nearly three decades, I was a newspaper publisher. That is the person in charge of the entire operation — editorial, advertising, circulation, business and production. I was lucky in that I spent most of my career working during good economic times for a great company that treated its employees well. I learned how to analyze a profit-and-loss statement, to budget, and to manage employees.

I was the publisher of the Longview News-Journal when business began to go south during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. I bounced around several newspapers after that paper was sold and eventually became a newspaper broker. I worked to put together deals for one newspaper company to buy another. Like a real estate agent, I only made money when a deal closed, but it was decent money when it occurred. Brokering allowed me to continue my first love, which is writing. I worked as a broker for four years, finally parting ways in January.

As a broker, I dealt exclusively with family owned newspaper companies of various sizes. I analyzed years of P&Ls, looking for ways that it would make sense for a buyer to take over and, in almost every transaction, allow the seller to retire. At times, I simply could not find a buyer. The owner either trudged ahead, hoping something would change, or closed the paper. I always felt as if I had failed when a paper closed. More than once, I was tempted to buy a property myself and go back into small-town newspapering. Reason prevailed. I don’t have the energy anymore to work the number of hours required at a small-town weekly.

I explain all this to say, folks, newspapers face an existential crisis. When stores are closed, they don’t advertise. Some days during the shutdown, the News-Journal had virtually no ads in it. Still, they kept covering the news and printing the paper, wisely opting to drop the Monday edition. To those of you that grouse about that, this is the reality. Advertising pays the bills at all community newspapers. At the properties I analyzed as a broker (not the News-Journal, I hasten to add), advertising accounted for 80-90 percent of the total revenue, with circulation making up the rest. As hard as they have tried, only a few have been able to generate significant online revenue — such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. For most community newspapers, online advertising is still a minor revenue stream.

Now more than ever, we need strong community journalism. So, here is what I urge you to do, if you’re not already doing so.

  • Subscribe to your local newspaper! Good journalism, such as we get in the LNJ, and you get in your hometown newspaper, isn’t free. I quickly lose patience with people who gripe about website paywalls on news sites. Newspapers should have put those in place more than 20 years ago.
  • Support good journalism, whatever the medium. NPR does a tremendous job of covering the news, and Red River Radio in our area relies on donations from its listeners to survive. Please consider donating what you can to those sources — including local newspapers — who are bringing us the news from the frontlines, whether it’s reporting on the pandemic or on mass protests in wake of yet another death of a black man, this time beneath the knee of a police officer.
  • If you own a small business, consider advertising in the paper. Even with diminished circulation, I still believe many small businesses get more bang for their buck from a newspaper ad than any other source. It depends on your business, of course, but think about it.
  • Make sure what you’re reading, or watching, is legitimate. There is a lot of crap out there. It is relatively easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. Do a bit of your own research before sharing some outrageous story that might be bogus. Use snopes.com to check out the legitimacy of stories.

It’s about time for me to step down from my soapbox. It should be obvious that community journalism is something I’m still passionate about, though I have retired from the arena.

The survival of our increasingly fragile democracy depends on a lot of factors. Without strong community journalism, I fear for our future.

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