Changing the conversation about newspaper closures

Changing the conversation about newspaper closures

For my entire career, the newspaper industry has been dying. It’s interesting that it was dying prior to me getting into the business over 15 years ago, too. Whatever is killing us has been taking a long time to put us down, and it’s odd that I happen to know there are a lot of newspapers still doing quite well, including our own.

That doesn’t change the fact that some newspapers are struggling. To ignore that fact is to be blind to what is happening around us, but the struggle isn’t always the industry’s fault and sometimes it’s very self-inflicted when it is.

I want to address the latter first.

Hedge funds and large corporate ownership is hurting newspapers across the country—just like they are hurting retail and, really, any industry they get their claws into.

The reason for this is simple: their main goal isn’t customer service, building a better product, or making sure the business is viable 10 years from now. A hedge fund exists for one reason only, and that is to provide dividends and returns for investors. If you don’t provide those things each quarter, you lose investors, and that requires a quick tweak to everything. Hedge funds have no patience for losing money, so when they are doing that, they cut their way to profits and claim, “Poor me.” The wound is self-inflicted, and anyone who is paying attention knows that.

A huge reason the newspaper industry is “dying” is due to poor management and poor long-term thinking by hedge fund managers, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect on the rest of the industry, which is smaller and locally managed. It’s a different world between the two and how they are managed.

That leads us to the small weeklies and locally managed newspapers that are struggling and some of which are closing. If they aren’t run by hedge funds, then why are they struggling? It must just be the industry failing, right? No.

Things are rarely that easy.

The truth is, and I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, in areas where newspapers are locally owned and failing, it is likely due to one of a few issues.

  1. The community itself is failing. Is Main Street getting sparse? Has the community lost its population to the nearby metros? If so, well, it’s not just the local newspaper that is struggling, is it? I am unaware of any industry that is judged like newspapers are. If the local hardware store in “Anywhere Town” in rural North Dakota closes, that doesn’t reflect on the rest of the hardware store industry. With newspapers, people draw the conclusion that the industry is failing and isn’t worth investing in, which obviously doesn’t make sense. Newspapers aren’t responsible for economic development for rural communities, and the fact that there is a massive brain drain and flight from rural areas of this country isn’t a newspaper industry problem but rather an American problem. It sucks, and it doesn’t mean that losing the newspaper in these communities isn’t terrible, but it also is representative of what is happening to that community as a whole and not the entire newspaper industry.
  2. Speaking of rural brain drain, some of these newspapers can turn a profit despite flight, but when it’s time to retire or hire help, it’s damn near impossible to get graduating college students to even remotely think about coming to a rural newspaper. It’s something we deal with—even with our flagship newspaper being just 25 minutes from downtown Wichita. I have been told multiple times that a candidate isn’t interested in living in our coverage area and will only consider the job if they can live in Wichita, which we don’t allow. We are wildly recognized as an innovative, young, and up-and-coming newspaper group, yet we can’t get college students to consider us. So, if you are an older owner, tired of the long days and nights, and can’t find help or someone local to buy your newspaper, you eventually come to the conclusion that you have to close it, despite the impact on the community.

When I read about news deserts, newspaper closures, and the problems with the industry, I rarely see the above issues—minus the hedge fund one—be mentioned as reasons for the industry having issues recently. That seems like flawed logic to me and something we should be more apt to consider.

What can newspapers do if they find themselves in one of the above issues? That is a tough call, but one of the things we have done at Kansas Publishing Ventures is try and train up people who live in town already. People who want to live in our coverage areas, and honestly, they have been better than some of the college students we have managed to lure away from the cities. My wife, Lindsey, is working on something our company will announce soon that might just solve this issue on a larger scale, as well. More to come when it’s closer to ready, but the idea is to adapt some of our strategies into a format that can be used in other markets.

As for economic development, there aren’t a ton of answers, but along with the University of Kansas, the University of Colorado and the University of Minnesota, we are going to see if we can find some new revenue streams rural newspapers can try this summer that might help rural papers slow the bleeding. We are going to experiment with a membership model that includes events and e-newsletters. If you can’t find help these ideas might scare you, but we are going to give them a shot and see what happens. The three universities are going to study the results and see if there are some viable solutions. Let’s hope we don’t scare them too much while they are hanging with us in south-central Kansas.

Everything requires effort and work. There are no silver bullets in this industry. Non-profit status, membership models, events, digital marketing, whatever the next thing is isn’t going to fix the issues the industry does have.

Nuance, knowing your community, and some old-fashioned elbow grease might, though.

As for the death of the newspaper industry, I am willing to take the over on whatever the line is. If you are reporting on the issues within the industry, try harder and realize that newspapers aren’t the same from community to community, much less across the board in this country. A lot of factors go into one struggling, if it is, and much of it isn’t something easily remedied or controlled by the newspaper itself.

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