Can newspapers – and their communities -- survive?
As a lifelong proponent of a newspaper’s value in building awareness and citizen involvement, I’d never encountered the view that maybe a good newspaper is why sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much engagement in community life.
“I didn’t go to the meeting last night because you said in your story that you’d be there,” responded one guy at the local coffee shop when I asked about why there weren’t more people at the public hearing held on a Saturday morning in Yankee Springs Township to discuss a nearly $1 million renovation and expansion of the township hall. “I had things to do, so I figured I’d read what you wrote in the paper and decide if I needed to be mad or not.”
Amidst the steady, ominous drumbeat of community newspapers fading away in an online digital information world, I wonder how people will decide what to be mad at or, for that matter, who to be proud of, who to be inspired by, or who to be grateful for if they have no local community newspaper.
It’s a threat that should concern all of us because newspapers and local journalism are focused on protecting readers by holding institutions, CEOs and even our neighbors accountable for their actions.
That’s especially true today because, though we have an abundance of information, so much of it is poor in quality due to unverified sources and questionable information. For the price of an iPhone, anyone can be a publisher. The local newspaper, though, is staffed by skilled journalists dedicated to the facts, writing, editing, and fact-checking copy, working hard to be sure readers are getting information from a trusted source.
In today’s digital age, the information the local newspaper provides matters more than ever. As the unofficial record keepers of history, we’re responsible for gathering and documenting everything that goes on in the community from local meetings, happenings, people and high school sports. Check under one of the refrigerator magnets sometime. Chances are you’ll find a story written about or a photo taken of someone you know, maybe your children or grandchildren. Only a local newspaper can provide that.
The dramatic changes being exerted by the powerful sources of digital information, online shopping and large corporations encroaching on small business is threatening not only the livelihood of community newspapers but is menacing communities themselves. Granted, the venerated business model of advertisers supporting local newspapers is under attack from online retailers and large corporations. Equally disturbing to me, though, is that these entities are outsiders – they have little or no interest in the local community and what provides quality living.
I’m constantly standing up for our J-Ad newspaper publications because I know how important they are to the community in keeping readers informed about what’s really going on and encouraging readers to shop and support their local businesses.
Late last week, one of my salesmen informed me that one of his best customers was reducing the size of the company’s weekly advertisement so more money could be directed to online advertising. Another salesperson reported that one of his customers recently hired a new sales manager who states he doesn’t use “traditional media.” Apparently, neither of these businesses value their local marketplace or the people loyal to their community who live within driving distance and who rely on their local newspaper for information about what the businesses have to offer.
For those advertisers who may feel that print is dead, national statistics in small towns across the country verify that local newspapers are still one of the best buys to promote business because of their solid readership base. According to our latest independent audit, J-Ad Graphics has maintained an average of 96 percent penetration in the market with over 82 percent of our readers who indicate they use our papers to make product and services purchases. And our papers attract readers of all ages from 18 to over 80 with the highest numbers found in the 55 to 64 age group. These are the people who frequent local businesses – with solid incomes and an understanding of the importance of shopping locally.
Websites value what they call being “sticky,” keeping a viewer onscreen for more than a few seconds. A newspaper, on the other hand, “sticks” around the kitchen table, in the living room, or on the bedroom nightstand for a week – until a new one comes to the front porch or mailbox.
Regular readers have certainly noticed the declining number of pages in our publications due to the loss of regular advertising. Many of these advertisers, like us, find themselves having to compete with online companies focused on taking away their customers. We believe in newspapering, and have one of the best reputations in the state for producing high quality informative publications that carry highly visible and responsive advertising.
There’s a great deal of discussion in our industry about whether we should continue to offer print publications or move to an online product. But after hundreds of large corporate newspaper groups have shut down their print products and moved mostly online, their success has been minimal. It’s been the small-town, market-focused community newspapers that have maintained their market share and readership. But it takes local advertisers who are willing to join in our mission to provide a strong and trusted product for the good of the community.
We continue to invest in journalism by printing people’s stories, protecting the public and reporting on what’s vital to our community. Due to the fact that most of our papers are delivered free to your home, we have to rely on local advertisers to keep them going. To survive we have to find new sources of revenue and work harder to protect the businesses who serve and care so much about our communities. Think about it, what happens when a community loses its newspaper? Who will write stories about what’s going on in the community – both good and bad while promoting local businesses and reminding readers how important it is to shop local?
As we begin a New Year I’m reminded of what Thomas Jefferson had to say about newspapers over 200 years ago, “Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” said Jefferson, “I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
I hope that local advertisers – and loyal shoppers and readers – side with Jefferson.
Fred Jacobs, CEO
J-Ad Graphics, Inc.