“What are you doing about readership?”
Recently, I spoke at the annual meeting of the Harrisburg chapter of the League of Women Voters, a great group of people who asked me to share my thoughts on the future of our fair city.
During a Q&A afterwards, one gentleman asked me that question, one I’ve heard countless times before. It comes in various forms, but can be summarized thusly: “How are you managing to survive the collapse of the newspaper industry?”
People have read the stories. They know that journalism is in a world of hurt. However, I find that they often don’t quite understand the problem.
It’s not readership.
TheBurg’s print run has doubled over the past five years, and we probably could double it again and still find a reader for every copy in our six-county distribution area. There are a few locations I refer to as “black holes”—places where I could throw Burgs in all day long, and they’d disappear just as fast.
People love our print edition—yes, even phone-distracted youth. But our digital readership is also way up, doubling in just the past year.
So readers? TheBurg has no problem finding readers. In fact, I’d venture to say that most local newspapers, when you combine print and digital formats, have more readers than ever before.
So then what’s the problem?
The problem, in a word, is this: money.
The newspaper industry has become impoverished. The ad-based revenue model has broken down, which I’ll now attempt to explain as simply as I can. But please bear with me. There’s a lot to unpack here.
First, when you talk about newspapers, you have to make distinctions. You can’t compare TheBurg to, say, the Wall Street Journal.
Each “property” has its own story, but I would say that there are three big buckets: a few national newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, the Journal), a ton of chain-owned legacy papers (locally, the Patriot-News/PennLive, York Daily Record, Lebanon Daily News) and a smattering of independently owned papers (locally, LNP, the Sun, the Press and Journal).
In general, the middle category—the old, chain-owned papers—is in the worst shape, and, when we discuss the failing newspaper industry, that’s often what we’re talking about.
Historically, nearly all newspapers shared one main business model: advertising. Sure, a newspaper company might make some money elsewhere (subscriptions, outside printing, events), but the bulk came from classified and display print ads. By the 1970s, most U.S. cities were one-newspaper towns, and the lucky survivor often was wildly profitable. Newsrooms were stacked with reporters, editors and designers; papers were thick with ads, stories, columns, puzzles and comics.
Then came the internet.
Beginning in the late 1990s, print newspapers faced a new technology—the digital distribution and consumption of news—and they didn’t know what to do.
Now, no one can predict the future, so I don’t want to seem too harsh on these chain-owned legacy papers. I realize that they’ve been trying to survive in a time when Google and Facebook vacuum up the ad dollars that used to be spent with the local paper.
However, 20 years of hindsight shows that, as they responded, they made a cascading series of blunders—killing their own highly profitable newspapers by posting the same content online for free; swapping high-margin print advertising for (very) low-margin online advertising; angering long-loyal print subscribers; degrading their own product; embracing the worst practices and gimmicks of online news.
On top of this, many newspapers lost local control. The distantly located corporate parent, which long had allowed their properties to operate mostly independently, began to impose top-down solutions, limiting the papers’ ability to respond tactically to the local market.
Now, contrast this situation with the other two “buckets.” The few national newspapers are doing pretty well. They stumbled around awhile before finding their footing again, experimenting with new products and instituting online subscription models (aka paywalls).
Locally owned newspapers—the third bucket—fall somewhere in the middle. Some are doing reasonably well, others less so. The most successful ones have stayed close to their communities and didn’t lose their heads, doing their best to integrate the new digital format into their existing print model.
I’m happy to report that TheBurg is faring well—and not just in terms of readership. I would credit that to maintaining focus, retaining quality and remaining deeply embedded within our community. I think we share these traits with most hyper-local papers that have shown growth during these profoundly difficult times. In addition, we control our own fate, which means that we’re able to make the best decisions for ourselves in our local market.
Having said that—we’re not immune from the existential crisis facing the industry. So, if you like TheBurg, I hope you’ll encourage a company or organization you’re affiliated with to support us as a community partner. There’s nothing I’d like more than to add a few reporters, so that we could give this community the depth and quality of coverage that it needs and deserves.
As an individual, you also might think twice before sending your money to Silicon Valley and Seattle (i.e. Google, Facebook and Amazon). Advertise locally. Shop locally.
Lastly, you can support us by visiting our website (www.theburgnews.com) and signing up for TheBurg Daily. That way, we’ll continue to grow our online numbers. Meanwhile, you’ll benefit by receiving direct links to our original reporting, the news we break nearly every day, apart from the monthly magazine.
Despite what I said above, TheBurg truly can never have enough readers.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.