I speak to lots of civic groups. (Yes, that’s a plug: Book me!) Last summer, I spoke to a meeting in Roanoke of county officials organized by the Virginia Association of Counties. I gave my customary talk about the changing nature of the news business in general – and Cardinal News in particular – then opened things up for questions.
Usually I get questions about the economics of journalism because that’s what I generally talk about. Sometimes I get asked about politics, because that’s what I write a lot about. Every now and then I’m asked to regale the audience with some colorful tale from my four-plus decades in journalism, at which point I always fall back on the story about my encounter with the Pagans Motorcycle Club, which started out poorly but ended up with me temporarily being the Pagans’ favorite journalist.
I was not prepared, though, for the questions I got peppered with that day: I was asked repeatedly when Virginia would change the law that requires local governments to advertise legal notices in newspapers.
It’s not that the local governments didn’t want to advertise. They simply didn’t want to advertise in newspapers, when they knew that print circulation is declining. Some of the county officials wanted to advertise on local online news sites, which they felt had wider circulation (and lower rates).
I couldn’t help them with that, but maybe state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, and Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, can.
They’ve introduced a bill that would allow local governments to do just that – to advertise their legal notices on local online news sites that meet certain criteria. This bill (SB 1237) may not be the most important bill in Richmond this year, but it is one that illustrates one of the biggest trends of the past three decades: the rise of the internet, and, with it, the decline of almost anything that doesn’t fit into a digital format.
For the record, Cardinal News would not benefit from this bill – we don’t sell advertising, we rely solely on donations – so that gives me the freedom to try to take a more objective view of what’s going on.
At one time, the requirement that local governments advertise their notices in local newspapers made perfectly good sense: That was really the only way to put those notices before a wide audience. Not many people pass by the courthouse to see what’s thumbtacked to the front door, but at one time, almost every adult had access to a newspaper. Some markets measured penetration – the percentage of households with a newspaper – in the 70% range. Those days are obviously gone. Newspaper circulation peaked in 1987 and has been going down ever since.
I’m often asked whether newspapers are dying. Certainly some are. The New York Times reported last year that “Overall, 2,500 newspapers in the United States – a quarter of them – have closed since 2005. The country is set up to lose one-third of its newspapers by 2025.” The New York Times computed that newspapers are closing at a rate of two a week. Just this week The Chesterfield Observer, a weekly paper in a county that’s adding more people than any other in Virginia, announced it’s shutting down. Only two years ago the paper won a Virginia Press Association award for being the best large weekly in the state.
The reasons for these closures are simple. If I were giving this talk to a civic group, here’s where I’d pull out my cellphone and show it off. Every day readers are voting in the marketplace that they prefer to consume their news digitally. A Pew Research Center study last year found that 82% of adults “often” or “sometimes” get their news on some digital device, be it a cellphone, a computer or a tablet; only 33% do so via print.
Now, that shouldn’t matter: Virtually every newspaper has a website, so it shouldn’t matter whether readers are reading the news on a dead tree run through a printing press or on electrons swirling around on a screen. But it does, and here’s why: The advertising dollars that once supported local newspapers are not going to newspaper websites the way they went to print. Instead, many of those ad dollars are getting vacuumed up by Facebook and Google and various social media sites. Total newspaper revenue in 2021 was less than half of what it was in 2006. If your local newspaper is laying off journalists (and they probably are), that’s why.
Not surprisingly, newspapers are keen to hold onto whatever revenue they can; that’s why the Virginia Press Association, the trade association for the state’s newspapers, opposes the Obenshain-Hope bill. (Fun fact: VPA also now has at least seven online-only members, including us. This bill would benefit any of those online-only VPA members that sell advertising.)
In effect, legislators are being asked whether it makes sense to use tax dollars to help prop up a declining delivery mechanism for local news – a form of industrial policy.
Back to the question I get asked: Are newspapers dying? Yes, many newspapers are dying but the key word there is the paper part.
Eventually, print will go away in many markets because the economics simply won’t support it. But that doesn’t mean the news organizations that we call newspapers will go away. Some will, if they’re not managed properly. But others will simply become what we already are: online only. When that day comes, they’ll wish this bill had passed.
I draw an analogy between the news business and the music business. When I was growing up, we listened to music on vinyl records, sometimes eight-track tapes and cassette tapes, then eventually compact discs. Now those physical formats have largely given way to streaming services. The interest in music hasn’t changed, merely the delivery mechanism. Same with news: The interest in news hasn’t changed, but the delivery mechanism sure has.
Imagine if the law required local governments to advertise legal notices in a musical format. If you wrote that law a century ago, you’d require that format to be a vinyl record because that’s all there was then. If that law persisted today, not many people would be hearing that notice; you’d want that notice through some streaming service. That’s essentially how Virginia’s public notice law works: It locks legal notices into a format that’s going out of style. By requiring they be in print only, we are essentially making public notices less public. In some markets, online news sites might have more readers than print newspapers – shouldn’t that matter? I’m not privy to such circulation numbers but it’s easy to measure size another way: In Charlottesville, the nonprofit online news site Charlottesville Tomorrow has as many news reporters as the city’s legacy newspaper, The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, based on their staff directories. Charlottesville Tomorrow doesn’t sell advertising, but if it wanted to, why should state law advantage one over the other?
We are living at a hinge point in history: We are witnessing a historic transformation in the news ecosystem. While print is going away, online news sites – both nonprofit and for-profit – are springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain. When we launched Cardinal in September 2021, there were 300 nonprofit online news sites across the country that were members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, and about half of those had started in the previous two years. Now INN counts more than 400 members. Another online news trade group, LION – Local Independent Online News – lists 454 members. Who knows how many more are out there that aren’t members of either? I know of at least four others in Virginia that aren’t on the list and I’m surely missing some.
One of those is the Page Valley News in Page County. That was the news site that persuaded Obenshain to introduce the bill. “Why are we still relying solely on printed newspapers for the distribution of public notices?” publisher Randy Arrington, a print journalist for 25 years before going online, tells me. “Not only would the public receive a much greater reach and impact by the involvement of online news sites, but ultimately it’s a matter of fairness in business. State law should not create a monopoly for one segment of an industry, while simultaneously excluding another that performs the same service.” Put another way: Why should Page County’s local government be forced to favor the legacy Page News & Courier over the upstart online Page Valley News? Or how about this: Why should Page County be forced to favor a news organization that’s owned by an out-of-state company over a homegrown outfit? Every daily newspaper in Virginia is now owned by an out-of-state media conglomerate and so are many weeklies.
Now, Arrington runs a for-profit news site that sells advertising, so obviously he’s as keen to pick up new ad dollars as print newspapers are to hold onto them, but he also raises this quite plausible scenario: “This could save local governments potentially thousands of dollars on advertising, while reaching a greater audience. This situation can be exacerbated in the future as small weekly newspapers inevitably close their doors and then some localities (under the current law) would have to reach out to the nearest daily newspaper (in some cases 50 miles away?) to publish their public notices at a cost three or four times higher to reach an even smaller segment of their local community.” Why should the law require a county to advertise in a declining delivery mechanism in another locality – with an out-of-state company – when there’s a locally owned online news organization serving that county? And consider this: Most newspaper websites have a paywall so readers have to pay twice to read the legal notices – once as taxpayers and again as subscribers, either print or online. Many online sites, operating with different business models, have free access. If the goal is wider distribution of public notices, should that matter?
On Jan. 13, Lee Enterprises – the Iowa-based company that owns many of the daily newspapers in Virginia – laid off every opinion editor in the state except for one in Richmond. One of those jettisoned journalists, Martin Davis in Fredericksburg, promptly launched F2S, an online news site covering Fredericksburg and its two neighboring counties, Spotsylvania and Stafford. That’s a pretty classic startup story. In Roanoke, laid-off Roanoke Times reporter Hendri Gendreau started The Roanoke Rambler. One thing is certain: In the coming years, we’re going to see a lot more online news sites. Some of these are for-profit, some of these are nonprofit, some take advertising, some don’t, but they are almost all local creations, not products of some distant corporation or hedge fund. The free market is a wonderful thing. State law, though, acts as if these news sites don’t exist. State law thinks it’s still 1923, not 2023.
The top pop song that year was “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. You’d be hard-pressed to find that on vinyl these days. But guess what? It’s on Spotify. Even a long-dead band leader has gotten with the times. Will Virginia’s public notice law?