June 27 will be a sad day in six Virginia cities.
As reported earlier by Cardinal’s Matt Busse, on that day six daily newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises will cut back to three days a week. In Bristol, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Danville, Martinsville and Waynesboro, this will bring more than a century of tradition to an end. Of those dailies, the Waynesboro News-Virginian is the youngest, having launched in 1901. All the others first rolled off the presses in the 19th century, dating back to the Culpeper Star Exponent on April 15, 1881, when James Garfield was president.
These changes in publication don’t come in isolation; since February, the Iowa-based Lee Enterprises has turned daily newspapers in more than 30 markets to three-day-a-week publications, including cities as big as Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Waco, Texas. (The Lee dailies in Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Richmond and Roanoke remain daily.)
Since this news broke, I’ve seen chatter online blaming these moves on the internet, corporate greed, out-of-state ownership, declining interest in news and corporate ownership of news organizations in general. Some of these are close to being right (the internet does play a role, just not the one many think), others are simply wrong (the alleged declining interest in news). All of them, though, miss the big point about why newspaper circulation is dwindling, so here’s my attempt to put this into perspective.
Some disclosure: I worked for Lee Enterprises from the time it took over The Roanoke Times in March 2020 until I left of my own volition in August 2021 to help launch Cardinal News the following month. I will say nothing bad about Lee, because what Lee is doing is no different than what many other newspaper companies are doing. They all have a math problem.
In April, I was in Richmond for a summit on local journalism organized by the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy. One of the speakers was David Poole, executive director of the Virginia Public Access Project, the nonprofit that tracks money in Virginia politics. Leave it to David to cut through all the jargon and get straight to the point: Newspapers, he told the audience, were never about news. They were about advertising.
That’s not to say that newspapers didn’t care about news, but that the vast majority of their revenues came from advertising, typically 80% or more back in “the old days.” You may have thought you were paying too much for your print subscription but the reality is that circulation revenue accounted for a small fraction of the total cost of producing that product. Your reading experience was, in effect, subsidized by advertising.
In those glorious days, that advertising revenue was primarily from local advertising and those local advertisers had relatively few options to connect with their customers — the newspaper, radio and television, if there was a television station in that community.
Since then, the main pillars of newspaper revenue have been undermined one by one by technological change.
Classified ads have virtually disappeared, drained away by free listings on Craigslist.
Real estate listings have gone to Zillow and similar sites.
Obituaries have migrated to Legacy and elsewhere.
Local advertisers first were stressed by competition from Amazon and other online sellers — look at how many dead malls we have — which reduced the money they had available for advertising.
Then came Google. Then came Facebook. And then came other forms of social media. They can target readers in ways that no one else can and together they have vacuumed up a lot of ad dollars that previously went to local newspapers. This isn’t just an American phenomenon; it’s a global one. A United Nations study in 2022 found that globally, advertising spending on internet sites surpassed advertising in newspapers in 2012. Since then, the one trend line (advertising on internet sites) has shot up up up while the other line (advertising in newspapers) has gone down down down. In 2010, about 15% of advertising dollars went to the internet; by 2021, more than 50% were. The share of advertising going to newspapers fell from about 22% to about 8%.
Here’s a more domestic way to look at it. In the United States, total newspaper ad revenue peaked in 2006 at just under $47.3 billion, according to the Pew Research Center. (That year, those ad dollars accounted for 82% of newspaper revenues.) By 2020, ad revenue had fallen to $9.6 billion. In other words, newspapers saw about 80% of their main source of revenue disappear in a period of just 14 years.
If you’re wondering why your local newspaper is shrinking, or cutting back to publishing just three days a week, that’s why.
You can blame newspaper companies all you want for this bad decision or that bad decision — there’s surely enough blame to go around — but this is the basic math they’re all dealing with. Their main source of revenue is drying up.
Lee Enterprises says it’s done a better job of retaining print readers than some other companies. Their new printing schedule suggests that may be right. The Tampa Bay Times (owned by the Times Publishing Company), publishes a print edition just twice a week. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock and the Chattanooga Times Free Press (both owned by WEHCO Media of Arkansas) now print only a Sunday edition. A report last year by the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University found that 42 of the nation’s 100 largest newspapers now publish a print edition on something less than a daily basis; 11 publish only once or twice a week. Some “newspapers” no longer publish a print edition at all. In February, the weekly newspaper in Emporia, the Independent-Messenger, announced it would go online only. In Alabama, the daily newspapers in Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery also published their final print editions in February; they are now online-only.
This is a classic case of a business that has been disrupted by technological change, no different from companies that once made typewriters, or photographic film or, dare I say, buggy whips. A survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that 53% of Americans now prefer to get their news online, while only 5% prefer print. The internet, though, isn’t what’s killing newspapers, at least not directly. Virtually every newspaper has a website. If print advertising moved directly to those online sites there wouldn’t be any problem; newspapers might actually make more money because they wouldn’t have the expense of buying paper by the truckload and ink by the barrel. What’s killing newspapers (and newspapers are going out of business at the rate of two a week, according to Northwestern) is that advertisers who once bought print ads in newspapers are now buying online ads on Google and Facebook and whatever shiny new thing is out there. Someday print will go away entirely — print readers tend to be older and older people tend to die. When that day comes, those news organizations will exist only online, with whatever revenue they can generate from online.
And that’s the problem, because that revenue will likely be even less than newspapers have now.
Axios reported last year that in 2026 online revenue for newspapers is expected to surpass print revenue. That sounds like good news except for this: Those lines will cross not because ad revenue from online is growing; they will cross because ad revenue from print is falling. Online ad revenue for newspapers has generally been flat and is expected to remain close to flat, Axios reported. It’s projected to grow at just 1% from 2022 to 2026. That means that if print went away today, newspapers (if we still want to call them that) would have less than half the advertising revenue they do now. (The most recent figures I’ve found, from Pew, show that in 2020 print revenue still accounted for 61% of newspaper ad revenue.) That, inevitably, would mean smaller news staffs than these news organizations have today even in their shrunken form. And that’s the real problem, not just for newspaper readers but for everyone, whether they’re a news consumer or not.
I am often invited to give talks to civic groups about Cardinal News and the changing nature of the media ecosystem. I tell them that if a certain subject isn’t covered by their local news organization, it’s probably not the result of bias, it’s likely because there are fewer journalists around to cover it. My go-to example: coverage of the General Assembly. At one time, there were “easily 45 reporters” covering the state legislature, according to longtime Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro. Now the number is less than half that “on a good day,” he writes, and often fewer.
Fewer journalists means fewer questions being asked about what your elected representatives are doing in your name. Some conservatives chortle about the demise of “the mainstream media” but conservatives, of all people, should be most concerned about this lack of scrutiny. As believers in limited government and limited spending, they should want to be sure that someone is keeping a close eye on what government is doing. I’ve heard of at least three governing bodies in Virginia that, when they looked out and saw no journalists in attendance to report on what they were doing, promptly voted themselves an unscheduled pay raise. Please don’t confuse the national news media covering Joe Biden and Donald Trump and whatever silliness is consuming us this week with the local news media toiling away telling people what the local planning commission is doing. We do not lack for coverage of the president, whoever that may be. What we increasingly lack are local journalists covering things of immediate impact in your community, from rezonings to high school sports.
The big question here is: Who’s going to pay for such news?
We have grown up in an era in which our local news was subsidized by (mostly) local advertisers. Without those advertisers, we will either have to reconcile ourselves to less news on fewer days, or find someone else to pay for news.
Many newspapers have tried to make up some of that lost advertising revenue by raising subscription prices, but there’s simply no way that readers can or will pay enough to support the newsrooms of old. So who will it be?
Those of us who have gone the nonprofit route are seeing success; the Institute for Nonprofit News, the trade association to which we belong, now counts more than 400 members across the country. Being a nonprofit, though, is not a business model. It’s simply a tax status. While we don’t have stockholders to pay the way for-profits do, we all have expenses that must be covered by revenues — and we’re all exploring different ways to generate that revenue, usually a mix of small donors, big donors, sponsorships and the like. For small donors, that donation is akin to a subscription price (just not one that’s required in our case, since we have no paywall). For big donors, we’re all trying to acquaint people with the value of journalism and the costs associated with it. As a society, we’re long accustomed to the notion that cultural organizations such as the ballet and the symphony and the theater require donations — ticket prices alone can’t cover the price unless they’re enormous, so if we want those things, they require philanthropic support. Journalism is no different, be it the nonprofit model or the for-profit model. Reporters cost money.
The change in printing schedules from daily to three times a week is a historic milestone but we should also not get distracted by that. This is as natural a change as music companies (we used to call them record companies) producing fewer vinyl records. The interest in music has not gone away; we just measure Taylor Swift’s popularity by how many streams she gets on Spotify instead of how many 33s she sells. The same with news: The interest in news has not gone away, it’s simply moved from print to online. We just need to decide how much of it we’re going to pay for.