The newspaper industry has continued its relentless downward spiral, which started with the advent of the internet and accelerated during the Great Recession. The pace of the decline has not slowed. New research shows that over 2,000 newspapers have closed since 2004, a staggering figure given that the industry was once among the largest employers in America.
Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, is widely considered the preeminent authority on the number of newspapers in the United States. That is not an easy task, since the number is in the thousands, and some are so small that their fates are hard to track. She is the author of “The Expanding News Deserts,” a term coined to describe areas where there is almost no local news coverage.
Abernathy told 24/7 Wall St. that, “It appears at this stage that we’ve lost approximately 2,100 papers, all but 70 of which are weeklies, since 2004.” The industry implosion has left almost half of the counties in America (1,449) with only one newspaper, which is usually a weekly. As of the most recent count, 171 counties do not have a paper at all.
The number of papers in America is currently about 7,000, but as revenue at most of them declines, that number is bound to shrink further. Some newspapers already are close to shuttering. Publishers, both individual owners and chains, have resorted to the equivalent of life support. A recent example is that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which was started 233 years ago, will cut the number of days it is printed from five to three. Two years ago, the paper appeared seven times a week. Management says that it plans to phase out the print edition completely. While the paper may survive online, the “downsizing” will cost dozens of jobs. A drop in the numbers of days a paper appears is part of the industry’s playbook to cut expenses.
No one in the newspaper business has come up with a solution to the industry’s falling revenue. Very few newspapers continue to flourish. Among them is The New York Times. Well over 3 million people pay for digital versions of the paper and its other products. Management has set a goal to reach 10 million paid subscribers by 2025. The Times, however, can afford a newsroom large enough to create a product that is unequaled anywhere else in the United States. The editorial staff of the paper is over 1,200 people.
While the Times flourishes, only one other U.S. paper (leaving aside The Wall Street Journal) has done well. The Washington Post, owned by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, is said to be profitable and growing. That makes the list of highly successful papers, financially, in the United States as a club of two.
Another handful of papers, mostly large city dailies, are owned and supported by billionaires or nonprofits. These include the newspapers in Boston, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Tampa. Even these properties are not immune to the industry’s problems. The papers in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Tampa have recently cut staff.
Almost all the other daily newspapers in America have the same problems. Print advertising has been eroding for nearly two decades. Classified advertising, in particular, has moved almost entirely online. Digital advertising growth at most newspapers has slowed. The digital advertising business, in general, is difficult because of the large market share held by Google and Facebook.
Papers also have difficulty convincing readers to pay for digital subscriptions. This is for two reasons. The first is that most newspapers have cut so many editorial employees that they cannot create compelling content. The other is that there is a massive amount of news, entertainment and sports material available online for free.
The notion of “creative destruction” has gained a great deal of currency in the business world. It assumes that aged and inefficient business models are relentlessly and necessarily replaced by new ones. As the process shreds the newspaper industry, it begs the question of what the advantage might be if one of the primary underpinnings of free speech and public discourse disappears.