Opinion: Newspapers Are in a Death Spiral

Except, perhaps, for those shivering dogs in the ASPCA commercials, there are few scenes sadder than a newspaper begging its readers for money to keep doing what it does.

That was the gist of Editor Silas Lyons’ appeal in a recent Sunday column, along with an account of how hard the small-but-plucky Record Searchlight editorial team works when disaster hits. His point, and a fair one at that, was that the local newspaper is there when we need news the most — during a catastrophic fire, floods, snowstorm or mass power outage. Of course, that is what newspapers, at least decent ones like the Record Searchlight, have done for decades. That they do it with fewer people (nine) than you find behind a Burger King counter, is worthy of his praise, and kudos to them.

But here’s the sad part: All the coverage of raging wildfires and freak snowstorms and even the next world war is not going to lure readers or their wallets back in the volume necessary to pay the light bill, let alone keep the presses running or newsprint flowing. Very simply, newspapers are in a death spiral that is partly their own doing and largely a sign of changing times.

Blame can be placed on Google or Facebook or the evil internet in general, but newspaper companies didn’t do themselves any favors. They took their product — accurate, thorough, trusted content — and gave it away on their web sites. For much of the garbage misinformation that’s out on the web, you get what you pay for — nothing. For newspapers, you got a whole lot more. But while that guy in his pajamas posting stories on his “Real Local Nooz” web site didn’t have a lot overhead, newspapers with real reporters, skilled photojournalists and hawkeye editors did, making it all the tougher to keep profits up. And they didn’t.

It is painful to see a once-great industry in a tailspin, like one of those wartime fighter planes plummeting into the ocean in a trail of smoke. But it is nearly impossible to get people to pay for content they can get for free or isn’t there at all. And without subscribers, there are no advertisers and without advertisers, no revenue for content. See the problem?

Editor Lyons spoke of a newsroom of 47 journalists not that long ago. The newspaper also had teams of photojournalists, editors and entire sections for business, sports, features and local news. It ran daily local editorials that criticized, praised or offered advice on issues in Redding and Shasta County. Its outdoors coverage was of Shasta County, not central Oregon. Those diehards who pay a hefty price for a printed paper each morning get mostly day-old local news and angst every time their house is missed or paper soggy. Not to be too crass here, but in less than 20 years I’d wager all of those subscribers will be gone one way or another.

The daily printed paper once was a profit machine, but sadly, that Titanic has sailed. Massive media corporations, like the one that owns the Record Searchlight, exist to make money. That doesn’t happen by giving their product away, although the current special offer of three months’ access for just one dollar is pretty darn close.

And that alone may just be sadder than those shivering dogs.

Greg Clark worked at the Record Searchlight for 31 years. His positions included reporter, city editor, graphics director and managing editor.

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42 Responses

  1. I’m delighted to have an opinion piece by Greg Clark, my former RS editor. He was a consummate journalist, someone who was in the newspaper trenches for decades. He knows what he’s talking about.

    Greg, I appreciate you for your dedication and service to this honorable profession, and for all you taught me. I feel fortunate to have worked with you at the RS during some of the newspaper’s glory years. I have some wonderful memories from that time.

    That’s why this piece of important writing means so much to me. Thank you!

  2. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I’m one of the few who still subscribe to the RS—I get three hardcopy papers a week and access to the website. I subscribe only because I cringe at the thought of there being no local newspaper.

    That said, I also cringe when I peruse the Friday-Sunday paper. To say that the RS is a shadow of its former self is like saying that the World Trade Center is a shadow of its former self. I gave up reading the comments below the articles a couple of years ago—if that’s *really* how many of my fellow Shasta County residents think, I just don’t want to know.

    I’ve resisted subscribing to The NY Times and The Washington Post, but I’m confident that will soon come to an end. I’ve grown weary of: “Your 5 free articles per month are up, you leach. Pony up if you want in.”

    On the other hand, I recently read about a study where the test group gave up social media and online news for a month, while the control group carried on as before. Guess which group was far happier and more productive during those 30 days?

  3. Thank you, Greg, for this moving account of the state of the daily newspaper in 21st century America. A sobering reality indeed.

  4. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    When the Internet really got going in the mid-90’s, I remember thinking how great it would be to have information and opinions from all over the world. What I didn’t appreciate was the value of a competent editor to filter out all the garbage and to verify sources. It’s a lot more work to get to the real story these days. I am grateful that we have anewscafe, and I lament the loss of in-depth local reporting that those many journalists provided.

    • And Tom, it’s because of people like you (and anyone who comments here, because only paid subscribers can comment on ANC), who enable aNewsCafe.com to survive, thrive, grow and provide local journalism.

      Thank you!

  5. Avatar Kathryn McDonald says:

    I love newspapers. I subscribe to the online versions of the Searchlight, the Sac Bee, the NYT, and the WaPo and to A News Cafe. After reading Silas’ sad piece, I wondered if it would be possible for local papers to at least partially become non-profit so that people can deduct their donations from their taxes.

    • Avatar Anita Brady says:

      In addition to the ones you listed, I also subscribe to WaPo and send The Guardian some money a couple times a year. “Democracy Dies in the Darkness.”

  6. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    As Dylan said, “The times, they are a-changin'” . . . . and maybe he meant the N.Y. Times. And I do subscribe on line to several news outlets because I feel that if we want verified sources and decently written content, it’s worth paying for. Maybe I should have continued to subscribe to the R-S but I got so p.o’d when all my favorite writers were dispatched en-masse, that I pulled the plug and circled the drain right along with them. . . . Doni, Keri, Jim, Jon and Dave Berry. So glad to have access to you guys at other sources such as anewscafe.com.

  7. Avatar Candace C says:

    I too have wonderful memories of working at the Record Searchlight. 33 years of memories – some good some not so good. The current plight of local newspapers is very, very sad to me. Thank you Greg for this opinion piece, I also have great respect for you and value your insight.

  8. Avatar Candace C says:

    And thank you Doni and staff for taking on the initial hurculean effort of creating ANC and moving professional, investigative journalism forward while promoting civil discourse. I appreciate it.

  9. Avatar Tim says:

    I am continually disappointed by the lack of *local* news & information in local newspapers. The RS still has a few (e.g. the Buzz on the Street), but 25 years ago there was so much in the paper that you could not easily find elsewhere – certainly not all in one place.

    And so much of it was positive coverage: rotarians looking for volunteers to install new playground equipment this Sunday, a little league championship on Saturday, a whole list of activity/hobby groups and when they met, a weekly profile of some overlooked local personality (everything from a longtime newspaper carrier to volunteer chess teachers & school crossing guards), etc. And it was not uncommon to recognize a name in the paper for achieving a milestone: graduation, marriage, new business, winning a sporting event or contest, etc.

    The nightly news doesn’t have time for all that, nor does the radio. No one on facebook curates such info. It was what made newspaper special. But today’s newspapers seem to plod along cranking out the bigger “newsworthy” stories that everyone already heard about yesterday.

    And while “if it bleeds, it leads” (ledes?) has always been a thing, todays news coverage is way more negative on the whole: disasters, crime, unusual accidents & deaths, failures of business/government, etc. The human interest stories now tend to be shared among sister publications so the news is more regional than local. Even if the story affects Redding, you wonder why you’re reading quotes and commentary from Visalia until you see that’s where the story first appeared…

    Going forward I see two types of “newspapers” surviving: The first is a hyperlocal digital website with low/no subscription fees, a large “circulation” and lots of ads and/or product placement/influencer type content. The second is a weekly that covers aging news in more detail and with more context: something a busy professional can read on a Sunday morning to get caught up rather than waste time everyday weeding through the noise. The later would charge very high subscription fees and have low circulation.

  10. Avatar Karen says:

    Having subscribed to the Record Searchlight since the 1950’s, I was sad to give up my hard copy every day. The cost went to $140 for three months and the delivery was sporadic. I got tired of calling an 800 number to report no paper that day. Now I do subscribe online, but it’s not the same! Local news is important, though, however, we receive it.

  11. Avatar Eleanor Townsend says:

    I still subscribe to the R/S. I read it (the parts I didn’t already know, doesn’t take long) after checking ANC. A major irritant is the ‘Subscriber Exclusive’, which is an occasional supplement to the Sunday paper. Cookie recipes, travel tips etc., that we otherwise for definite sure would not be able to learn, without paying the $3.00 Gannett charges for each of these. I always call the long-suffering lady in the billing department, and tell her I want to opt out of the ‘Subscriber Exclusive” and please to reimburse my $3.00. Which she does and I feel bad for her. It’s Gannett, not her.
    I don’t want the extra wasted paper, I don’t want the carrier to have to haul it, I don’t understand how a large corporation (Gannett) can imagine we haven’t figured out that we can and do get this stuff on the internet. Hmmmm. $3.00? (This is announced in a card that arrives once a year, telling us we will be charged for this, it doesn’t show on the newspaper, because it’s just for us ‘exclusive subscribers.’) I save ‘Ask Amy’, my favorite part for last. Sometimes you can learn something there.

    • I don’t know if we’re talking about the same thing, but I remember there was something called “The Shoppers’ Spotlight” that the RS would mass deliver to every driveway, even of non-subscribers, so that it could, when talking to potential advertisers, cite an inflated number of “households reached” to include in the count those skinny little coupon rags that invariably were thrown away. Of course, the advertisers thought “households reached” meant via the “real” newspaper, not the coupon rag. Semantics.

  12. Avatar Pamela Knowles says:

    I’m a subscriber of Record Searchlight in addition to ANC
    I love waking up to find the paper st my front door. There’s something about holding it and reading I love
    I’ve feared they would stop doing print, since a paper my sister wrote for in Tucson went under
    I had no idea the staff had shrunk so drastically. I hope they don’t go away. It will break my heart for staff and all of us mature readers who still love to pick up the paper I grew up reading.

  13. Avatar Judith Salter says:

    I too still get the paper version of the paper. What I dislike the most is the USA Today effect. I really don’t need to know about hold ups in LA or NM or even SoCal. Nor do I need a whole page giving me gardening tips for New Hampshire. What I miss the most is a local editorial voice.

    • Avatar Candace C says:

      Judith, I agree with you regarding the “USA Today effect”. I used to think of USA Today as an “airport terminal paper” – a little news here, a shiny tabloid blurb there…

  14. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    One thing that hurts paper news that to cut costs they made the print smaller. I cannot read a USA paper because the paper is so small Al least with digital I can zoom larger.

  15. Avatar Carrie Dokter says:

    We just renewed our Searchlight for the year. I could not let it go yet. I enjoy reading the paper in the morning but I agree, I don’t need to know the gardening tips for the east coast, etc. Will Joe send us a reminder when it’s time to renew our ANC subscription?
    Carrie

    • Carrie, first, thank you for being a paid subscriber to ANC. We appreciate you!

      Second, yes, Joe’s keeping track, and we will send reminders when your subscription is due. Thanks for asking!

  16. Avatar Bruce Ross says:

    When I moved to Redding in 1997, the only other dailies available were The Bee and the Chronicle. If you knew where to look, you could sometimes get a copy from a Chico News & Review rack. That was it. When an ambitious L.A. Times publisher decided they were going to distribute statewide and i could pick up a copy at the post office racks, it was a very big deal for my news-geek heart.

    Compare that tiny market to the effectively infinite competition for the reader’s attention that the Internet creates. Maybe it was an original sin to post news on the web for free, but assuming that people would just pay for things — or that the mechanisms are in place to take their money — assumes quite a lot. (Says the guy who just had to try three email addresses before finding the right one to log in, then try three different passwords before getting the right one, then getting redirected to my profile page instead of the page I started at — all for the trouble of leaving a quick comment.)

    • Avatar Greg Clark says:

      Bruce, point well taken — there is a universe of “stuff” to attract our attention on the web. However, then — and now — there is virtually no competition for the unique product local newspapers provided. That is, quality, vetted, saturation coverage of local issues. Births, deaths, weddings, and a million other hometown topics of interest. Your Chron, Bee, WSJ, BuzzFeed, TMZ, or the million other internet offerings can’t give you that, free or otherwise. Agreed, some readers would not pay for local content, even back then. But there was enough value to monetize it in some manner and newspapers have struggled with that. Ironically, the one thing they refused to give away — classifieds — have pretty much evaporated and the winner is Craigslist, which — you guessed it — is free.

      • Avatar Bruce Ross says:

        I place a very high value on good local news coverage — believe it or not even more than I did when I was employed creating it.

        I’m not sure the evidence in the marketplace suggests that attitude is quite as common as people like you and me wish it were.

    • Bruce, I’m glad you’re here, and I’m sorry for the hassle. I wish it weren’t a thing to have paid subscribers, but this is what’s not just keeping us alive, but allowing us to bring on new reporters. (Stay tuned for that soon.)

      Thank you.

      • Avatar Bruce Ross says:

        I have no problem with paying for a share of my media diet, Doni. But man do I not need one more password to remember. 🙂

    • Avatar Candace C says:

      Bruce, I’m happy to see you here and respect your opinion as well. I’m also pleased to see that ANC subscribers subscribe to the RS as well as other news publications.

    • Joe Domke Joe Domke says:

      If you need help resetting your password you can email me at joedomke@gmail.com.

      That goes for any reader here.

  17. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    We are grateful readers of ANC, enjoy the daily Washington Post online, and have been loyal subscribers to the RS (print and digital) for the past 4 decades. Being without these sources of information would be the equivalent of being deaf, mute, and blind, and witnessing the slow demise of traditional newspapers is a source of dismay. Silas and his skeleton staff do a remarkable job with their scarce resources, and we can only hope that this local news source survives.

    For the record, as of February 2018, full subscription price of the RS was $14.34/month. On March 1st it increased to $18.00/month, and then in November increased once again to the current $24.00/year. Although that one year increase of 67.4% has not dissuaded us from continuing to subscribe, it likely will cause some current subscribers to drop at least the print edition. We have an excellent carrier whom we highly value and are concerned not only for the RS staff, but also those others who will be adversely affected by the loss of print subscribers. One wonders what Gannett’s long term strategy might be, and what effect their corporate decisions will ultimately have.

  18. Avatar Doug Mudford says:

    I missed Greg’s original posting but I wanted to comment before it disappeared from the front page.

    I proudly add my name to the news addicts everywhere. I take the weekend print versions of the RS and the Chronicle and on-line versions of ANC, The NYT and HS.

    The print versions have me wondering why I still do it. It’s a self-fueling inverse relationship…the more I pay, the less content I get. I still like the Chronicle’s Saturday crossword and it’s Sunday “pinkie” section. I can’t think of any reason to continue the RS since the local items have dwindled to sparse at best.

    I guess I’m paying for past enjoyment…damn, I did enjoy the feel of oversized pages (even staining my fingers from the fresh print), the sheer number interesting columnists who became daily reads, making me smile or think about a topic in a way I hadn’t considered.

    I do believe the time of print newspapers has passed. It was a good run. By the time a print paper is delivered to your door, the news events have already been broken and discussed for 24 hours. I’m a fan of instant news…it’s a good diversion when I need one at 3:30 am in the morning.

    ANC is a great bridge from one era to the next. It helps us hear local viewpoints and maybe a smile now and then. Doni, I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. I know it has’t been easy to raise ANC, especially in a transition time…I hope you remain a part of our local fabric for a long time. Thank you for letting me subscribe.

    Doug

    • Doug, your message, like you, is so smart, heartfelt and eloquent.

      Thank you for the comment, thank you and Barr & Mudford for being such loyal advertisers who’ve been with us from the very beginning, thank you and Cherry for being subscribers, and thank you, Doug, for your delightful, thought-provoking Reflections.

      ANC and I are so very fortunate, and appreciate you more than words can express.

      Doni

  19. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    When Doni left the Searchlight, we stopped our subscription. Shortly thereafter, the Searchlight abandoned Eastern County by no longer delivering to households. We could drive to town and buy an edition, but a 10-mile round-trip for yesterday’s news hardly seemed practical – especially since by then, the Searchlight had lost Greg Clark and a few other favorites. The Searchlight allows five free online visits a month, and I use them to read David Benda’s Buzz. I hope that with enough paying subscribers, ANC can hire a business reporter. And I still miss Femme!

  20. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    I also read Silas Lyons’ editorial, which I read in a larger context that just the death of print newspapers. The entire journalism industry, print and online, is struggling. You can make more money with a fake news website that a real news website, because fake news doesn’t require actual reporting, you just make shit up. The general public seems to be oblivious to how much work creating real news stories requires, since so many people are reluctant to pay for online subscriptions. This leads to the monopolization of news sources into just a few decidedly moderate-to-conservative corporations, and in areas such our own, veritable journalism deserts.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Added to that are the folks who forward idiotic pieces because “So-and-so got it off the web; so it must be true!”

    • Avatar Tim says:

      Civilization cannot confer credence to corporate crony capitalists controlling current coverage.

      What’s the solution – the government? That’s just a nudge away from state-run media… Or perhaps it is time for news consumers to boycott biased, inflammatory, and/or hyperbolic media outlets until they return to passive & objective coverage.

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        Tim, that ain’ta gonna happen because so many of the listeners/viewers are biased and enjoy inflammatory, hyperbolic media outlets. When I see bumper stickers that state, “Rush is right,” I cringe.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Tim, in a survey of businesses that have benefited from the Trump being president right at the top were NY Times and Washington Post. And it takes no genius to figure out that the American and World public can’t get their fill of inflammatory Trump news.