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Lamenting the Loss of Local Newspapers

We had an item yesterday about how people are skipping the (national) news because there's so much negativity and nastiness contained within. Since we ran that item, we thought we would also mention this complementary story from PBS about the loss of local newspapers.

The broad trendlines here have been felt across the entire newspaper industry, even the big boys and gals. But they have been particularly profound for small and small-ish papers. When it comes to display advertising (the larger ads, usually with pictures or other visual elements), advertisers have largely decided that other options are more promising. For example, (Z) used to work at the Daily Bruin. The Greeks used to spend $30,000-$40,000 advertising their rush weeks; now they buy 1,000 glossy postcards for $200 and hand them out on Bruin Walk. The student store used to spend over $100,000 announcing the sales of the week; now it sends out a mass e-mail. Beer companies used to place full-page ads ($2,000 a pop) the day before football games; now they pay Facebook and Instagram for electronic ads. Add it up, and it's a loss of well over $1 million in ad revenue for a publication that was only taking in $2 million at its very height. The only thing that keeps the Bruin afloat now is that students have to pay a subsidy each quarter. Needless to say, most small newspapers don't have that option.

Also devastating is the loss of classified advertising. This may not occur as readily to those who are not in the business, but classified pages used to be goldmines. As a general rule-of-thumb, a full page of classified ads brings in about three times as much money as a full page display ad. And so, a robust classified section can subsidize two or three newspaper sections (say, arts, opinion, and the comics, which don't bring in too much money on their own). These days, unless you're looking to reach the AARP set, it is much wiser for a person or business to advertise on Craigslist and/or social media. And those things, in addition to reaching a wider and more on-target audience, are free.

As a result of these sizable changes to the business model, many newspapers have been gasping for air for years (or, sometimes, decades). Hastening the trend are the several media conglomerates that specialize in identifying distressed newspaper assets, scooping them up, extracting whatever value is to be had, and leaving the rest to rot.

As PBS observes, the result of this is that at least 2,200 small and medium weekly newspapers have gone belly up since the year 2000 (a figure that does not include, of course, all the failed dailies and semi-weeklies). They use as their case study The Canadian Record, which had a circulation of 1,000 or so. Despite its name, it was actually the "paper of record," as it were, for a small town in Texas, which so happens to be named Canadian. Mind you, it was probably still subversive. Nonetheless, it kept residents apprised of "the city council, school and hospital board meetings, the impacts of droughts and wildfires, the babies born, football games won, and residents lost."

When the Record failed, most of that went away. And with it went a reminder of the commonalities that residents of different political stripes shared. In some cases, there's no great way for people to get that information anymore. In other cases, they can get it, but often in a way (say, Facebook friends) that reaffirms their political bubble. The folks at PBS are "hopeful" that this trend can be reversed, but the fact is that 2,200+ publishers and editors have tried and failed, so one shouldn't hold one's breath. (Z)

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