Are local media healthy? Public perceptions meet reality

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Capital News Service

LANSING — The Journal Tribune of York, Maine, died on Oct. 12, 2019, at the age of 135. The cause was money – actually, lack of it, the daily newspaper said. 

Lisa DeSisto, the chief executive officer of the company that bought the paper 18 months earlier, told employees, “Despite efforts to reduce expenses and grow revenue, we have not been able to make the Journal Tribune profitable. When we finished 2018, the Journal Tribune was unprofitable. We set a goal to turn it around and in the first quarter we came close to that, but then it went upside down again.”

Six employees lost their jobs, leaving York County without a daily of its own.

The disappearance of local papers, whether in Michigan or Maine, isolates residents from events and activities in their communities.

Here’s another troubling sign for local newspapers: Last September, Starbucks stopped selling local and national newspapers in all its U.S. stores, although it now offers its customers free online access to some papers. 

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center recently reported that about one-quarter of U.S. papers with an average Sunday circulation of 50,000 or higher experienced layoffs in last year.

“The layoffs come on top of the roughly one-third of papers in the same circulation range that experienced layoffs in 2017,” its analysis said. “What’s more, the number of jobs typically cut by newspapers in 2018 tended to be higher than in the year before.” 

Despite such stark developments, 71% of American adults “believe their local news media are doing well financially, even as only 14% say they have paid for local news themselves in the past year through subscribing, donating or becoming a member.”

That’s the word from the latest Pew Research Center report on news media, based on its survey of 34,897 Americans. Overall, it said, older white adults with college degrees are more likely to pay.

“Local newsrooms across the country are struggling financially amid declines in revenue and staffing, but the public is broadly unaware of these challenges,” according to the study, “Who pays for local news in the U.S.?” As for who is among that 14% who open their wallets to support local media, the Pew study offers some interesting findings:

White adults with college degrees are more likely to pay, the survey found. The highest proportion is news consumers 65 and older – 29% reported ponying up for local news in the past year. That contrasts with a mere 7% of those between 18 and 29.

Another factor: People who are “civically engaged” and “highly active” in their communities are more likely to pay for local news. 

And those who prefer print papers for local news – 39% – are much more likely to pay than those preferring other platforms, the study found. That’s more than twice the share of those who prefer radio, news websites or apps, four times the proportion who prefer TV for local news and more than the four times the proportion who prefer social media. 

Regardless of age, race, ethnicity or education level, majorities perceive their local news media as fiscally healthy. The majority is higher for those who feel “highly attached” to their communities.  disappearance of local papers, in Michigan and elsewhere – including the one in York, Maine—isolates residents from events and activities in their communities.

Pew Research Center communications associate Calvin Jordan said the study data “cannot definitely answer why there is a misperception of the financial health of local news media.”

And the Michigan Press Association has no definitive explanation either. 

“It’s a matter of people not knowing the industry that well, just seeing what they see from the outside,” says the association’s Lisa McGraw. Local community papers “aren’t doing as horribly as the corporate guys. I don’t think they are dying, especially small-town papers, but the margins are significantly less than they used to.” 

The problem isn’t limited to print media, McGraw says. “My radio and TV friends are in the same situation. They’ve had lots more disruption than we had.”

A longer version of this commentary appeared in

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