Today’s digital economy appears to refute the wisdom of an ancient idiom, “You get what you pay for.”
We are inundated by offers of economic benefits that appear to cost nothing; or at least not enough to justify the expense involved. Private taxis, bike rentals, computer software and applications, long distance telephone calls and free deliveries are only some of the most notable “freebies.” Eventually we learn that there is a hook in each of those offers. For some, the real price is “free” access to our most personal information. For others, “free” is just a way of driving conventional competitors out of business, while the losses incurred to do that are covered in the short term by venture capitalists and in the long term by selling shares in the public market.
Newspapers and magazines have a long history of providing value to both readers and advertisers. Most of the cost of providing those benefits has been covered by advertisers who understand the benefits of having their messages included with stories and news that readers want and trust. But now traditional newspaper advertisers are offered essentially “free” advertising that might pop up anywhere on the worldwide web used by literally billions of people.
It is never clear how that can help a small business reach potential customers within the local area. However, many businesses conclude that the price is right; particularly when compared with the price that needs to be charged for advertising in order to pay the costs of collecting the news, publishing and delivering a print magazine or newspaper.
As the number of advertisers has diminished, local newspapers and magazines have become smaller and publish less frequently. Newspapers that try to make up for lost advertising revenues by relying more upon subscriptions and single copy sales find that option hindered by the “free” availability of their own news reports through social media and internet searches and by a developing perception that all news is or should be available at no cost to the reader, despite the significant costs to the providers. As a result, many communities that have had daily or weekly newspapers for more than 100 years find themselves without any newspaper or even a single journalist covering local news. Instead, unvetted postings and individual comments on free social media are their only sources for the news of their community.
But there is an alternative to this downward spiral of reduced revenues and shrinking or disappearing newspapers. If the readers whose local newspapers and magazines are at risk had the foresight to talk with local businesses about the importance of advertising in their local print media so that readers would be better informed about both those advertisers and their community, some local publications could be saved. If those same readers subscribed to their local publications and encouraged others to do the same even if they can get most of the same news for “free,” that would also help.
Local publications need to do their share as well. The first thing we need to do is tell this story, despite our traditional reluctance to “be” the news, rather than just report it. Recent surveys have revealed that a significant majority of Americans believe their local newspapers are doing just fine economically, despite the fact that nearly all local newspapers have reduced their size, frequency and staff during the past decade. According to a 2018 study conducted by the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, almost 1,800 community newspapers across the country have gone out of business since 2004. Local publishers need to let their readers and advertisers know how threatened their businesses are, and what needs to be done to save them. Hopefully this editorial is a good first step for our community.
According to Google, the phrase “you get what you pay for” is so universally true that it dates back to at least the 15th century and is common to many cultures. In the modern world of local newspapers, that message can also be rephrased as “We lose what we don’t pay for.”