One of the most common questions I’m asked after telling people what I do for a living is: “How is the newspaper business?”
The honest answer is: “Not very good.”
As an industry nationwide, most newspapers are in critical care and many are on financial life support.
The Associated Press reported last week that over the past 20 years, the number of newspaper jobs in the United States has declined by about 65 percent. An estimated 426,000 people were employed by newspapers two decades ago; today the number is about 150,000, with many newspaper operations continuing to cut employees in an effort to just keep the doors open.
Having spent more than 40 years working to keep people informed via the privileges afforded by the constitutional guarantee of a free press, I am loathe to consider that a day may be coming when there is no objective and independent entity capable of communicating vital information to those who need it.
The industry is reeling from a series of financial body blows that has many newspaper operations staggering against the ropes:
For decades newspapers in the United States depended on advertisers to underwrite the cost of covering the news and to provide a profit margin. But now advertisers are exploring other marketing options — most of them digital — leaving newspapers searching for new streams of revenue.
Most newspapers are realizing the key to survival now is to get readers to pay more for the content they receive, knowing that in the past subscribers actually paid only a fraction of the true cost of delivering the news. When you think about the fact that someone fills a printed newspaper with information and delivers it to your driveway, typically for less than the cost of a cup of coffee, you realize how underpriced the product truly is.
But the need for consumers to pay more comes at a time when fewer consumers see the value in paying for news content at all. For many, the idea that they should pay to read a news story, either in print or online, is a non-starter, considering the huge volume of information available that is seemingly “free.”
So when newspapers need public support the most, the public is the least inclined to help.
The most recent assault on the business side of printed newspapers comes in the form of the tariffs that have been imposed on Canadian paper production companies by our government. The majority of newsprint used by most newspapers in this country comes from Canada, because of the scarcity of mills in the United States producing the product.
It isn’t a matter of newspapers not wanting to buy from U.S. companies, but rather that there aren’t sufficient U.S. companies to meet the need. The tariffs have already driven the price of newsprint up considerably, and forecasts are that the cost of paper will continue to climb in dramatic fashion for the rest of the year.
The harsh realities of a loss of advertising revenue, a reluctance by subscribers to pay for news and sharply rising production costs do not bode well for many newspapers.
Sadly, the failure of the business model for many in the industry comes at a time when our nation and our world need accurate, honest objective news coverage more than ever. When the sources of “real news” dry up, “fake news,” propaganda and disinformation will take over.
When people think about newspapers, they think about the journalism, not the business of producing and delivering content. Somehow, there is a false public perception that the journalism can continue without a viable business model behind it.
In a perfect world, we could put all of our energies into gathering, packaging and distributing the news that people so desperately need without having to worry about making money off the process. But that world doesn’t exist.
Here at The Times, we’ve got about 90 employees who need to get paid for their efforts, so that they can feed, house and care for themselves and their families. We have taxes to pay, expenses to meet and capital expenditures to make, just like any other business. We have to be financially viable to survive.
So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy one.
Here at The Times, we are committed to providing our readers with professionally reported local news that is important to them and that they cannot get anywhere else. We are committed to providing our advertisers with marketing avenues that have been proven to work time and time again. We are committed to delivering an exceptional product in print and online that is worthy of the legacy of The Times.
For us to continue to do that, we need your support. We need you to subscribe to the newspaper, which is still the greatest bargain in town. For less than the cost of a pack of chewing gum, you can stay abreast of everything you need to know about local schools, governments, politicians, sports, entertainment and sometimes even the interesting couple living just across the street.
We can provide what you need in print, delivered to your home, or in a digital product delivered to your phone, tablet or computer.
We’re committed to keeping the journalism going because it’s vital to our survival as a free nation, but we need your help to pay for it. It’s as simple as that.
Norman Baggs is general manager of The Times.