What’s the future of newspapering?
I worry for the future of some individual newspapers.
My hometown paper and the birthplace of my career, the Battle Creek Enquirer, serves a city of more than 50,000 people and a county of more than 100,000 people and has fewer journalists working in its newsroom than does The Alpena News.
And now Gannet Co., the Enquirer’s corporate owners, are in merger talks with GateHouse Media, which is owned by an investment firm known for slashing newsrooms to boost profits.
I worry for my friends who still work in Battle Creek (and at other Gannett papers in Lansing, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Louisville), but I worry more for my dear hometown. Studies have shown all kinds of bad things happen when towns lose their papers, including lower voter participation (see that research here: https://tinyurl.com/y4x4alhy) and higher government costs attributable to the loss of an independent watchdog (https://tinyurl.com/y69epgc7).
Yes, I worry for individual papers.
But I do not worry for newspapering in general.
Lots of people thought radio and then television would be the end of newspapers, and we have survived. The advent of the internet and blogs was supposed to end newspapers. It’s taken out a few, but the industry has adapted and survived.
And I have no doubt we’ll continue to do so.
Pew Research Center data has signs of optimism.
While overall circulation is down, Sunday circulation back in 2014 was actually higher than it was in 1940, and last year was only down 5% from 1940 levels. Sunday papers have typically housed some of the best work journalists can provide (and yes, the most coupons).
Digital readership actually grew 41% between the end of 2014 and the end of 2018, Pew says. That’s even after most newspapers around the country — including the biggest, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times — instituted paywalls that limited the number of online articles readers could access for free.
Pew data also shows that, while overall newspaper revenue is down, revenue from circulation — that is, revenue from readers — is up significantly when compared to 1960 and down only 2% compared to its 2002 peak (see all of Pew’s figures here: https://tinyurl.com/y5wmsjhu).
That tells me readers, the people who benefit most from newspapers’ existence, still care about newspapers and are willing to support them, financially.
Add all that up, and I see a picture that says newspapers may look different in the future — more stories told online, and relying more on readers than advertisers to make the business side of things work — but they will continue to exist and even thrive, if the corporations that own them give them a chance to do so.
And that’s because newspapers give readers — who are voters, shoppers, investors and community activists — information they can’t get anywhere else and that they need to make informed decisions about how to vote, shop, invest or get involved.
Case in point: The News — in the same editions that contained stellar watchdog work on finances at Plaza Pool and Northern Lights Arena, fun features on the Michigan Brown Trout Festival, and more — recently wrapped up a series looking at the challenges of providing timely, adequate health care in our rural corner of the world and how providers are overcoming those challenges.
After the series ran, I got an email from a reader who owns a vacation home in Northeast Michigan but is considering moving here in retirement. She was concerned about taking that leap because she wasn’t sure what the health care system was like Up North. The reader told me The News’ series had given her the information she needed.
She didn’t reveal what decision she made (I sure hope she decides to move up), but that email made me smile because it told me that my stellar reporters had done their job.
And, by the way, I really don’t worry about the future of this newspaper.
The News continues to provide fantastic, in-depth local news, wonderful Lifestyles features, terrific sports coverage, and all kinds of special sections with no online paywall and a bargain 50 cents for a single weekday copy.
My old paper, the Enquirer, with the same number of pages and fewer reporters, is $1.50 a single copy.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.