By Dan Kennedy
Will the struggling newspaper business survive? No. And yes.
Let me explain. Several days ago, the New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote an elegy for the age of newspapers, by which he meant ink spread across the reconstituted pulp of dead trees and trucked hither and yon to be deposited on the porches of grateful readers. News will survive, Rutenberg told us, but the medium through which that news appears will soon be entirely digital.
Yet, as Rutenberg also pointed out, here we are some twenty years into the era of digital news—and advertising revenue from print editions continues to be what keeps newspapers afloat. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry whose majority revenue is not still print,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher Michael J. Klingensmith told him.
Print is dying, but it pays the bills. Many if not most readers have shifted to online, yet digital ads bring in pennies compared to the dollars earned by their print counterparts. It’s an existential crisis, and it’s one that I explored several years ago in my book The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).
Much of The Wired City is devoted to the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit website founded in 2005 by the longtime New Haven journalist Paul Bass. Taking advantage of the savings realized by not having to produce a print product, Bass was able to support a staff of four full-time reporters, raising money from foundations, local institutions, wealthy individuals, and reader contributions. And if four reporters doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that of the dozens of journalists employed by the New Haven Register, a chain-owned daily paper, only four of them were assigned to cover New Haven.
The Independent was my major focus, but I examined other growing news projects as well. In Hartford, both a for-profit website, CT News Junkie, and a nonprofit, the Connecticut Mirror, were covering politics and public policy. In Batavia, New York, a former newspaper executive named Howard Owens was publishing The Batavian, a for-profit website festooned with well over a hundred local ads. On the West Coast, the nonprofit Voice of San Diego was seeking out new ways of reaching readers and making money, and had formed a partnership with a local for-profit television station.
Meanwhile, large metropolitan newspapers continue to struggle. According to the Pew Research Center’s latest State of the News Media report, the newspaper business in 2015 experienced its worst year since the Great Recession, with advertising revenue dropping by nearly 8 percent.
The one great exception to the downward trend is the Washington Post, which, under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has bolstered its staff and attracted the largest digital audience of any American newspaper. (I examined the Post under Bezos in a paper I wrote earlier this year for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School.) But if there is a solution for regional papers such as the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, or, for that matter, the New Haven Register, it has not yet appeared on the horizon.
Meanwhile, every online-only project that I wrote about in The Wired City continues to thrive and even expand. In the summer of 2015 I visited the New Haven Independent to report on a story for the Nieman Journalism Lab about Paul Bass’s latest venture: a community radio station, WNHH, to be broadcast online and over the air via a low-power FM (LPFM) license.
Today, the Independent and WNHH complement each other. The radio station features a large staff of volunteer broadcasters representing every demographic group in the city: African American, Latino, white, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Highlights from their shows are regularly featured in the Independent, making the site feel like a true reflection of the community.
Will newspapers survive? No. Will the news survive, as Jim Rutenberg assures us it will? Yes. But the large commercial ventures that support the news may not. Rather, the future may belong to grassroots projects, both nonprofit and for-profit, that can raise money locally and live off the land in a way that large-scale publishers simply can’t—or won’t.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV in Boston. He also writes regular media and political commentary for WGBHNews.org. His blog, Media Nation, is online at http://www.dankennedy.net.