Eyewitness accounts of a February 9 PostGazette newsroom confrontation (See the Pittsburgh City Paper and other sources.) demonstrated that the paper’s publisher can get rather churlish with his employees when in his cups, and thinking too hard about the tens of millions of dollars the publication has lost over the years.
But it would behoove John Robinson Block to recognize all that red ink should be more directly attributed to the Internet than to the Post-Gazette’s unions, or to a payroll that has experienced obvious cuts over the past 13 years. Mr. Block, in his most rational moments, must also see that his newspaper’s travails are part of larger trends that threaten both the quantity and the quality of print journalism as once known.
,Jill Lepore noted in a January New Yorker that around 500 US daily newspapers had folded in recent decades, while “the rest cut news coverage, or shrank the paper’s size, or stopped producing a print edition, or did all of that … .”
The causes of this debacle are numerous, but all can be directly attributed to the digitalization of traditional sources of newspaper revenue, and of the written product newspapers generate.
In 1996 Craigslist was launched on the Internet and almost immediately began to cut into newspapers’ classified ad revenue; a 2014 study published in Management Source found that Craigslist cost newspapers $5.4 billion in revenue between 2000 and 2007. Editor and Publisher reported that 70% of some newspapers’ ad revenue came from classifieds.
Then, in the 21st century, news aggregators like the Huffington Post and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter took to essentially offering newspaper-generated content free-of-charge to their “customers.” The late journalist Russell Baker estimated some years ago that 80% of online news came from newspapers.
Perhaps the most unkindly cut came when social media sites began employing accumulated data profiling their users to sell directed advertising to businesses and organizations once in the habit of buying display ads in newspapers. The lamentable result, according to Pew Research, is that total newspaper ad revenue dropped from $49 billion in 2006 to $18 billion a decade later. The Post-Gazette recently reported that in 2019, for the first time, companies will spend more on digital ads than on advertising appearing in the more traditional venues of print, TV, and radio.
With more and more readers beginning to get their news in digital form, regardless of the source, newspaper circulation has taken a direct hit. In 2015, according to a Brookings Institute report, newspaper circulation per capita had fallen below 15%, while the per capita figure was 35% in the mid-1940s. The Post-Gazette’s circulation in 2005 was reported by Infoplease as 213,352. By 2015, according to 24/7 Wall Street, that number had dropped to 140,987.
Such grim numbers raise an obvious question: What business model will allow for the continued existence of regional newspaper newsrooms and the independent journalists who staff them?
One model is to move more and more content into completely digital form, and then create firewalls to prevent readers from having wholesale access to that content without subscription. The Post-Gazette’s decision not to publish print editions on Tuesdays and Saturdays reflects this model. Its advantage is immediate savings in newsprint and labor costs, while recognizing that digital content must be monetized. Newspaper circulation revenues have been gradually increasing, but not nearly enough to offset the losses in ad revenue.
Problematically, the New Statesman recently reported that even all-digital news websites like Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox have been losing circulation lately, and laying off staff. Locally, news website The Incline has recently been sold by its parent company, Spirited Media, and laid off a staff member in 2017, the City Paper reports. These sites have also aimed at a hybrid model, combining ad revenue with contributions from “members” a la public radio and television.
The philanthropic model has US representatives such as ProPublica and Public Source, which rely on contributions by foundations and individual donors. The question is whether such a model can sustain a full-scale operation for local news coverage like the Post-Gazette, with its 150 reporters, web and print editors, photographers and others. Perhaps the most successful philanthropically funded newspapers is the UK’s Guardian, taken over by the Scott Foundation in 1936, which still pledges to pour all revenue back into the production of both its on-line and print content.
Another possible source of revenue, proposed by the nonprofit organization Free Press, is a 2% tax on the ad revenue of on-line companies with revenues over $200 million a year. The tax would result in $1.8 billion a year for distribution to such projects as “local-news start-ups, investigative endeavors and civic-engagement initiatives.” Unfortunately, such a tax would not save local newspapers themselves.
A final alternative would be to abandon the model of professionalized, transparent, independent journalism of the past 100 years, and a return to the openly partisan press that helped build America’s twoparty system in our nation’s infancy. That disconcerting prospect is explored in an accompanying article.
By Neil Cosgrove, a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.