Historians will look back many years from now and point to 2019 as the end of the traditional metropolitan daily newspaper.
The decline has been building for some time, since before the Great Recession in 2008. My journalism professors at Columbia University were warning about the demise of printed daily newspapers more than two decades ago.
This past year we reached a tipping point toward no return. The industry has changed so dramatically and moved far away from our traditional understanding of what it means to be a mid-sized city newspaper. More than that, people within and outside the industry finally seem ready to accept this change, nostalgia be damned.
Certainly here in Pittsburgh, the signs are obvious. Just over three years ago, the city had two daily printed newspapers, backed by wealthy individuals willing to lose millions of dollars to keep them going.
The Tribune-Review stopped printing in the city in November 2016. It still publishes every day in the suburbs, from its offices in Tarentum and Greensburg, and puts out weekly newspapers across the region. The company has also experimented with digital products and new ways of making money. Even when these efforts didn’t survive (looking at you, UpGrūv), they still offered meaningful insights about what people want.
But its printed daily newspaper in Pittsburgh no longer exists.
The Post-Gazette, of course, dropped two days of print in 2018 and another two days this fall. The Block family, which owns the newspaper, has signaled a strategy to move toward digital products rather than print. None of this is to say that the PG is going away anytime soon, but it certainly will look more different than it has in the past.
Nationally, the signs have been more subtle because of the slow erosion of traditional journalism. Columbia Journalism Review estimates that 3,385 journalists lost their jobs this past year. And Business Insider, in what it called a “media landslide,” puts the losses closer to 7,800 people (with non-reporters and editors included). Newspaper circulation has hit its lowest level since 1940, when researchers started keeping that data, according to the Pew Research Center.
Writer Maya Kosoff recently presented a grim toll of losses at places such as BuzzFeed, AOL and HuffPost, and at newspapers such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which laid off all 161 employees after a competitor purchased the newspaper.
The recent merger of the nation’s two largest newspaper companies, Gannett and GateHouse Media, portends even more losses. The new company encompasses 260 dailies in 39 states. They control one in every six U.S. newspapers — dailies in big cities including Phoenix, Providence and Austin, and in small towns including Beaver, Pa., and hundreds of weekly newspapers in large and small communities.
The changes it implements will affect places all across the United States. Even before the merger, both companies laid off hundreds of workers at local newspapers. Immediately after the merger, executives talked about the need for more cuts.
All of this underscores the end of mid-sized, metro daily newspapers as we’ve known them since the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, large publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are making the transition to subscriber-based digital models. These large newspapers still have difficult work ahead but they seem to be figuring it out.
Many small, local newspapers are maintaining – and in some cases still discovering – a niche in printed products because residents still have few options for information about their community, and advertisers still feel good about reaching them this way. Note, this mainly holds true for areas that still boast of a respectable economic base, but many small-town publishers are finding ways to make money.
Startup community newspapers such as the Mon Valley Independent in Monessen and Community Gazette 2.0 in McKees Rocks are moving from heavy losses to breaking even or adding capacity. They’ve done this by focusing entirely on local news, and ignoring national and international affairs that readers can find in other places.
Ogden Newspapers, based in Wheeling, W.Va. and owned by the Nutting family (which also owns the Pirates), continues to purchase small town newspapers across the United States. Clearly, they see value in this strategy.
West Virginia University even is launching a center dedicated to encouraging and educating small town newspaper publishers. It’s kind of a secret, director Jim Iovino told me, but these people are still making money.
So where does all this leave the large metro daily newspapers?
At Newsgeist last month, industry thought leaders shifted to the idea that it no longer makes sense spending millions of dollars propping up traditional mid-sized newspapers despite their brand recognition and rich history. Why spend millions of dollars to buy and “save“ a traditional newspaper, one former news executive asked when we could spend far less to start something new without all of the inherent costs of infrastructure, pension obligations, etc.?
We’ll likely continue to see a fracturing of news and local information with a proliferation of smaller news outlets and nontraditional places for information sharing.
Small media outlets can serve local communities and niche topics, earning enough to support small newsrooms that develop loyal followings. Where we once relied on one or two outlets to uncover and report all the news across a vast region, dozens of smaller companies are taking their place.
We’ll also continue to see citizens taking greater control of their own stories.
I’ve been doing a lot of work in McKeesport since The Daily News closed four years ago. In that time, the Mon Valley Independent opened a bureau there. Also, residents have started several Facebook groups with thousands of followers.
They share information from police scanners and local government press releases, National Weather Service forecasts and notes about used items available for free to new owners.
We’ve taken to calling places “news deserts“ when traditional media outlets close or shrink their coverage area.
That’s not accurate though: News still happens there even when the local newspaper closes. And people still share the local information they discover. It’s just that the traditional newspaper no longer exists.
It’s time to accept that the newspaper as we knew it has died.
And yet, I believe historians also will look back at this period and agree that it marks the widespread acceptance of new types of metro news organizations — many of which still have yet to be discovered.
Comings and Goings
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Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.