The Internet has few winners; local papers are not them

The death of local journalism has made the news so many times it is no longer remarkable. Stories have gone national. Some people may read the local paper from time to time, but do they ever check their website? Moreover, if they do, do they pay for it?

While a handful of newspapers have figured out how to succeed in the online era, local papers are still struggling. Their print version suffers trying to pay for the newsroom, and the digital one does not blossom. The reason is apparent: on print, papers compete geographically with their closest competitors (by miles.) Online, they compete with the world—and against the world, there are few winners and thousands of losers. 

Photo by Peter Lawrence on Unsplash.

The shift from print to online journalism overhauled the entire newspaper business in the early 2000s. Until then, print journalism in the United States had at least ten prominent daily newspapers. Now, it has two or three. According to  Nieman Lab, in 2002, dailies like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune delivered around half a million papers. Only The New York Times printed over a million, followed closely by the Los Angeles Times. In 2019, the tide has turned. Two East coast papers have millions of digital subscribers (the New York Times counts over 2.7 million subscribers and The Washington Post over 1.7 million.) Others, like The LA Times (170,000) and the San Francisco Chronicle (57,000) have lost their clout. 

Before the Internet, journals only had to compete with their local rivals and there were very high entry barriers, ranging from newsroom development to distribution. For example, the Chicago Sun-Times confronted only the Chicago Tribune. In print, the physical limitations of distribution and coverage allowed them to rule the market. Only those who entered the same geographical region were competitors. After the Internet, The Chicago Tribune is up against every single website. The New York Times is a competitor, as are The Post, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Spotify, YouTube, WebMD, and so on. Online, papers fight for the consumers’ time (ad-wise,) and money (subscriptions.) Thus, every site that captures their attention and asks for a contribution becomes a rival. A kid making a video from a garage and posting on Instagram drives eyeballs away from a paper’s homepage. Whereas in print, geography set limits; online, geography doesn’t matter. Online, the entire world is the competing ground.

In this world of winners and losers, the United States, given their subscriber base, has only seen three big winners so far: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. These newspapers invested in their paywalls and took care of their online subscribers. In the process, they stopped being local (especially The Post, which used to pride itself on its local coverage.) They first became national; and now, international.

It is logical to think that if they have achieved it, other local dailies could. They can invest in their newsrooms, drive subscribers to pay monthly, and boost their digital footprint. But it is not that easy. As we have already said, online, there can only be a handful of winners. Consumers are not willing to pay for unlimited news subscriptions—plus their entertainment and food subscription fees (read No more subscriptions, please.) Two or three news subscriptions are enough so that the consumer will pay for the best product (in terms of quantity and quality.) That is, they’ll pay for national papers. In the meantime, local journals suffer: they seem unable to convince readers to pay for news about their local community. So, digital subscribers do not increase, newsrooms get cut in half, and the print product has to drive the business with the ads it still displays. They can try to sustain their small newsrooms through digital advertising, but it seldom works. They do not get the eyeballs, their quality suffers, and the revenue from online ads is meager (and not enough.) The result seems unavoidable: local papers die-off (read What the almost 3,000 journalism job cuts tell us about the media industry.)

The change to online news has had several advantages for consumers—subscriptions reward quality and quantity, and breaking news come up instantly on cellphones. It has also improved newsrooms in some ways—journalists are now able to determine what works and what doesn’t. However, the Internet has changed the fighting arena, and not all journals are ready to compete with the world—especially those designed to serve small communities that by definition have a much smaller audience. 

Today, for local journals to survive, they must either partner with national papers or remain hyperlocal with a skeletal cost structure. On the one hand, if a local newspaper from the Midwest partnered with a giant like the Times, they could share revenues, keep their newsrooms alive, and still do local news. For example, the nonprofit outlet ProPublica supports a local reporting network to help local newsrooms do investigative journalism. Similarly, other news giants could partner up with local dailies to deliver stories. On the other hand, for some outlets, remaining hyperlocal still works. For example, there are several print newspapers in Spanish serving hyperlocal Hispanic communities, mostly family-run. They’ll hardly find competition as few papers cover hyperlocal issues.

What’s clear is that local newspapers cannot compete online with digital giants, be it other journals or any other website. Digital subscriptions will not save their newsrooms. They need to find alternatives, or the digital wave will put the last nail in their coffin. 

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