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Journalism has many ways to survive

There’s an old saying in journalism: If everyone’s happy with you, you’re doing a good job. If everyone’s mad, you’re doing a great job.

If that’s true, I received a major boost of confidence from this week’s letters to the editor.

Last week, I penned a column about my audit of The News’ Commentary pages, the results of which disproved a reader who felt our content was lopsided against President Donald Trump.

As you can read on today’s Page 6A, readers scoffed at my analysis from both sides. Some said the analysis was itself biased against Trump and proved nothing. Others said the reader complaint that prompted the column was ridiculous, because The News is so plainly biased for Trump.

While it would be nice to not take lumps from all sides, the letters encouraged me. After all, you don’t yell and complain about things that mean nothing to you. Those readers care about their paper and want something from it.

That tells me journalism will survive.

Contrary to the assertions of some of our critics, the decline in newspaper readership and revenue has very little to do with any supposed bias. Just like today’s letters to the editor, newspapers have always been criticized by both sides of the political spectrum.

The losses are caused mostly by a splintered media landscape. Today, newspapers, TV, and radio compete for both readers and advertising dollars with untold numbers of websites, social media apps, wearable tech, video games, streaming services, and much, much more.

Newspapers have a smaller slice of the pie because there are more slices.

But newspapers are still widely read and profitable. Some 31 million people subscribe to Sunday papers. Nearly 29 million are weekday subscribers. Tens of millions more read us online.

Nationwide, we’re a $25 billion business.

Cuts and closures have happened not because those newspapers weren’t profitable, but because they weren’t profitable enough for corporate shareholders.

And there are ways around that.

I point you to the Salt Lake Tribune, which last fall became a nonprofit enterprise. That shift allows the paper to focus less on the business side of things and more on its mission of serving the public good, because it can solicit tax-deductible donations from individuals and foundations who support that mission.

The Tribune’s change is a thunderous shift in American journalism. The Tribune is an institution, and, if it can make the nonprofit model work, you’re likely to see more papers follow suit in the coming decades.

In Michigan, the nonprofit Bridge Magazine proves the model can work. Bridge does some of the best journalism in the state, compensates its writers and editors very well, and, according to its most recent tax filing, has enough money to operate for more than two years without collecting another dime.

Which is unlikely. Bridge raised $1.3 million last year.

Some of the other ways newspapers are trying new ways of doing business:

∫ Many Gannett newspapers now host regular live storytelling events to which they charge admission.

∫ Gannett also has played around with its paywall, which limits access to online stories unless you’re a subscriber. Typically, readers can access any of a certain number of stories every month before they’re asked to subscribe. But Gannett has started running more subscriber-exclusive content, which no one can read unless they pay.

Also a possibility, I think, are a la cart subscription models, especially in bigger cities. Detroit Free Press readers, for example, might someday be able to subscribe for a discounted price to only Detroit Lions and Tigers news or only political news, as a way to satisfy those readers who say a subscription is too much and they don’t care about politics or sports.

What’s interesting about all those models is that they depend on readers who are engaged and therefore willing to fork over a donation, admission, or a subscription.

It shifts the balance from advertising — which has traditionally made up some 80% of newspapers’ revenue — toward readers, who are the people for whom we exist, anyway.

Your Alpena News sits on pretty solid ground. We offer more to readers and advertisers for less money than any of our peers in Michigan and most nationwide, giving us plenty of room for revenue growth without any seismic shifts in operations.

But, for those making the leap to a new way of doing business, I know the readers will be there.

Even if they’re all mad at the editor.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.