Digital Ad Sales, Subscriptions Can't Save Most Newspapers

  • by May 7, 2019
The growing gulf between rich and poor households in the United States has worried some observers. They fret that the unrelenting decline of the middle class will lead to social instability or political upheaval.

Unfortunately, an analogous divide between the haves and have-nots of news media is also growing -- a depressing trend that could have profound effects on the press’s role as a community watchdog.

A must-read report in The Wall Street Journal last week had me questioning my assumptions about the ability of newspapers to survive in the digital era.

I’ve written many columns that highlight how big-city newspapers like The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post have boosted digital subscriptions, enacted harder paywalls and beefed up their content-marketing studios. But the closures of 1,800 newspapers in the past 15 years have meant that half of the country’s 3,142 counties are lucky if they have one newspaper.



“Local papers have suffered sharper declines in circulation than national outlets and greater incursions into their online advertising businesses from tech giants, such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc.,” the WSJ reports. Smaller publications also have a hard time getting readers to pay for digital news.

This year’s bankruptcy of the Reading Eagle, a family-owned newspaper that has served the Pennsylvania town and its surroundings since 1868, is typical of the experience of many smaller publications. The newspaper tried to adapt to the digital era with a stronger paywall, but only signed up 3,000 subscribers, the WSJ reported.

And job losses in the industry are mounting. 

The Times-Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper that traces its roots back to 1837, last week fired its entire staff of 161 people after Advance Local Media sold the publication to cross-town rival the New Orleans Advocate. The Times-Picayune had won multiple awards for its reporting over the years, including its coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

It’s a shame to see these publications disappear when the digital media industry hasn’t produced adequate substitutes.

Blaming Google and Facebook for what ails local newspapers is practically de rigueur among journalists. The companies have thousands of highly paid engineers working on making their apps indispensable to smartphone users. Yet, not one of them has figured out how to sustain local news.

Separately, on the Facebook front, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is trying to hide his purchase of $59 million of Lake Tahoe real estate by using a limited-liability company and nondisclosure agreements, as the WSJ also reported.

He’s going to need a fortified compound to escape the pitchfork-wielding mobs of unemployed newspaper workers when the revolution comes.

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