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Norman Baggs: News flash, local media companies are not doing well financially. Here's why you should care
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If you love the country in which we live, believe that it is better to be knowledgeable than to be ignorant and are a fan of freedom, then the results of a recent survey by the renowned Pew Research Center should scare you to death.

According to the survey’s findings, the vast majority of Americans believe that local news media companies are doing well financially, and they have no interest at all in paying for local news coverage.

Norman Baggs

That more than 70% of those surveyed believe local news media is on firm financial footing is reflective of a refusal to face economic facts. In the past 15 years, some 1,500 newspapers, roughly 20% of the nation’s total, have gone out of business completely. In addition, hundreds more have reduced frequency of distribution or have dramatically reduced staffing, or, like The Times, have done both. 

At the same time, many traditionally local newspapers have been purchased by huge national chains, which have in turn combined operations between multiple newspapers to realize an economic upside, usually reducing commitment to covering local news in the process.

The end result has been the creation of “news deserts” across the country where there is no local news media to provide vital information to the general public, or media so reduced by economic woes as to be unable to do the job it should.

A study by the University of North Carolina found that in Georgia, newspaper circulation has declined by nearly 50% since 2004. The state has seen some 44 newspapers go out of business during the past 15 years and now has at least 28 counties that do not have a local newspaper at all.

Story after story has been done on the plight of local media, and yet the Pew survey finds most people do not believe there is a problem and consider local media companies to be financially sound.

Part of that misconception may be the result of how people think about their local media company. With nearly five decades of working in community newspapers, I can attest to the fact that many do not see the media as a private business that has to make money in order to survive. To some, the local paper is like a public utility, one that’s always been there and always will be. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the past, newspapers primarily depended on revenues generated by advertising so that the public was served the news for a very nominal fee that generally did not cover the cost of production. Today, despite ample evidence that print advertising still works and is a great bargain, the siren call of digital marketing and competition from huge major players like Google and Facebook have disrupted the old business model and left it a shambles.

So now, in order to survive, newspapers have to depend on those willing to pay for the content they receive in amounts proportionate to the cost of producing the news product. This leads to the second part of the Pew Survey — people are not paying for news.

Pew found that only about 14% of those surveyed had paid for local news in any fashion in the past year. The survey showed that the willingness to pay for news had a definite correlation to the demographics of age — nearly 30% of those 65 and older paid for local news content in a year’s time, while only 7% of those in the 18-29 age bracket had done so.

The survey’s findings come as no surprise to those of us in the business. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t hear, “Why do I have to pay for the news? It should be free!” 

Except it can’t be free.

Having feet on the street to collect local news content and produce it in a professional manner, then printing and delivering it to customers in the form of a newspaper, or posting it online for digital readers, is an expensive operation. 

And before you launch into a harangue based on your ability to get all the news you need through social media or in some “free” fashion off the internet, stop and consider the quality and the focus of the news content you are consuming in that fashion. Odds are, if it’s local in nature it’s coming from a community newspaper, or some other local media company like radio or television. 

Facebook doesn’t have reporters; Google doesn’t have reporters. The New York Times and the Washington Post aren’t going to cover your city council meetings or high school football. So where is that content going to originate when local media goes away?

The American public would not expect to pick up food from the grocers or fill up with gas from a pump without paying for it, and yet 86% of those surveyed by Pew said they haven’t paid for any local news in the past year. Wonder what percentage of those have paid for Netflix or Spotify?

If you think local news operations are doing well financially, then you are wrong. And if you think they can survive without the financial support of the end users of the content they produce, you are wrong again.

If you’re smart enough to understand that the existence of a strong free press is essential to the existence of our country and the quality of our communities, then you should be smart enough to appreciate the reality that the media can’t exist without the financial support of those it serves.

Local newspapers like The Times are disappearing every day. They are too vital to become extinct. Do your part to save them by buying a print or digital subscription today. It’s important to everyone, not just those of us who depend on it for a living.

Norman Baggs, general manager of The Times, has worked at community newspapers in Georgia for more than 45 years.

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