Newspapers are businesses like no other. While other employers contribute to community life, newspapers, when operating at their best, are centers for community conversation and drive the quality of community life.
Newspapers may never again have the volume of advertising that sustained them through most of the last century. Times have been and continue to be tough for the printed press, but the larger risk is to the communities they serve.
The newspaper business model has always been, in a word, atypical.
A farmstand illustrates a normal buy-sell transaction. A customer provides cash to the person who grew the tomatoes in exchange for the tomatoes. American journalism has a one-off.
Long ago, advertisers recognized that the best way to reach customers was to piggyback with information people were seeking. For instance, a sports fan checking scores in the paper might glimpse a tire sale ad and remember his own worn treads and go shopping.
The newspaper, in turn, would take the revenue from the tire advertiser and pay the sports writer. This model kept subscription prices low, usually not even enough to pay the cost of paper and ink.
Marketing in digital times is very different. People with real estate, cars, clothing and groceries to sell have another pathway to shoppers, a pathway that has increasingly cut into newspaper revenue during the past 15 or 20 years. Almost all newsrooms have downsized, and remaining employees have been expected to do more and more with less and less.
Of course, newspapers were early to embrace the digital space and to court online advertisers. Still, after a century of paying only a fraction of the cost of daily delivery of news and information, customers understandably think online news should be free, too.
It’s National Newspaper Week, by the way. Some publishers will fret about the “good old days” being past and gone. Some will talk up their ideas to “embrace the future.” A third conversation —the most important one — should center on the value good newspapers bring to communities as well as what’s lost and who suffers when this component is missing.
The most obvious loss is jobs. When every crossroads had a newspaper and bigger cities had several, newspaper employment was one of the largest categories in America. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the last 10 years, newspaper employment has gone down by half.
The less obvious and more important loss is to community well-being.
As a candidate and as president, Donald Trump has done everything in his power to discredit the media, which he sees as evil. Bashing journalism was a central theme during his rally in North Mississippi last week. Credit him for using the media as a foil to advance his agenda, but he didn’t invent it. It’s a proven tactic.
Do note, however, not a single “positive” he cited had not been reported by the media he loathes. Weirdly, like his predecessors, he uses facts gleaned from the media to bash the media. Well, OK. Like almost all public officials before him, news that he finds favorable is accurate and news that is critical is fake.
It has always worked to the benefit of newspapers that people are naturally curious. No one, young or old, wants to be that person who “hasn’t heard.” Again, though, the stakes are higher than being the cool person who knows the latest.
Two things make democracy work: Open government and an informed public. Having one or the other won’t do. Got to have both.
To date, the latter portion has been provided by private media that found it profitable to feed the public’s curiosity and enjoy the support of “ride along” advertisers. That model is not nearly as viable as it once was and, as a consequence, communities large and small stand to become less self-aware, less vibrant, less functional.
And that’s not good.
Is there reason for optimism? Yes.
The business model for journalism has changed, but the fundamentals have not. It’s not true of everyone, of course, but most people want to be good citizens. They want truthful and reliable information about their city or town, state and nation. It feeds helps them make decisions.
In Mississippi, many community newspapers remain dedicated to fulfilling their public purpose. Here’s a prediction: As long as people of those towns are well-served with ample and accurate news, they will live in prosperous, progressive communities.
The other view is, well, disaster. It’s not just “too bad for them” when a newspaper fails. Like it or not, it’s “too bad for us.”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.