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Another one bites the dust … maybe it’s our fault

The McClatchy Co. publishes 30 daily newspapers around the country, including some stellar titles such as the Kansas City Star (an early Hemingway employer) and the Idaho Statesman. It also publishes the flagship daily of my home-away-from home in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It also filed recently for bankruptcy protection.

McClatchy had the bad fortune of taking on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to acquire another newspaper company, Knight Ridder, just as newspapers’ bottom fell out amid the duel threats of a tanking Great Recession economy and the rise of online ad behemoths Google and Facebook.

The Chapter 11 protection, at least in theory, is meant to help McClatchy keep its publications afloat while restructuring that debt, according to the Washington Post (full story here: https://tinyurl.com/vonnnnr). But McClatchy’s restructuring means the family is handing control of its publications over to a hedge fund, who are not known for investing in newsrooms.

But that’s not the most interesting part of that story.

The most interesting part was a small figure included in WaPo’s background on the headwinds facing McClatchy and the newspaper industry as a whole: The Post reporters pointed to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey that found 71% of American adults think their local news outlets are financially healthy, while only 14% have actually paid for a subscription.

That is a serious disconnect to which newspaper publishers all across America ought to pay serious attention.

Newspapers need their readers to understand how important their support is.

And it doesn’t appear readers have made that connection.

Let’s recap.

Back in the day, before smartphones and the internet and social media, newspapers essentially had two competitors for advertising dollars: the radio and TV. Advertisers spread their advertising dollars around pretty liberally to all three in attempt to reach a broad audience, with newspapers getting a lot of dough as the main (if not only) distributor for retailers’ coupons.

Newspapers had essentially zero competitors when it came to classified advertising. There was no place but your local paper to place a help-wanted ad or to advertise the old Buick you were trying to sell.

The big money coming from advertisers allowed newspapers to sell their product for a dime or a quarter, even though it takes thousands of dollars a day to produce.

That big advertising money emboldened newspapers to offer their product online for free.

If only we’d known.

Enter Google. Facebook. The iPhone. Now, a business can throw up a Facebook page for free and think it reaches all the same people a newspaper ad might (it doesn’t). A grocery store can text coupons directly to customers. All the big national chains who used to spend advertising money in newspapers all across America now throw up their own website and pay Google to advertise it. Help wanted ads go to Monster.com or Facebook. That Buick is sold on Craigslist.

Newspapers now have an infinite number of competitors. The pie of potential ad dollars is carved up into so many pieces, and Google and Facebook are taking such big servings, no one else is really getting fat.

Which leaves you, dear reader.

At peak revenue in 2005, subscription and single-copy sales accounted for about 18% of newspaper income nationwide, according to Pew.

In 2018, that figure was 43%.

In short, readers are becoming ever-more important to newspapers’ bottom lines, and it does not bode well for our future if a majority of our readers think we’re doing well enough that they don’t need to buy a subscription.

In too many towns across this country, it’s already too late. There’s no paper to subscribe to.

So perhaps newspapers ought to make a more concerted effort to tell readers how important they are. To remind readers that reporters are humans, too, with families that have to be fed and bills that have to be paid.

And that means readers’ subscriptions or over-the-counter quarters are needed if they want to keep seeing their kids’ sports games covered, their kids’ plays previewed, their kids’ academic achievements highlighted. They need to subscribe if they want to keep getting a warning about impending taxes or an analysis of a candidate’s campaign donations or an explanation of the ways school bond money will be spent.

And it goes beyond what appears in the daily paper. The content newspapers uncover leads to so many other ways those stories are told.

Would there be a Hemingway without a Kansas City Star?

Not every newspaper chain is saddled with debt and headed for bankruptcy, but every newspaper chain is in trouble at some point in the future without the continued support of its readers.

And newspapers ought to make sure readers know that.

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

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