Newspapers Shrink as Online Journalism Struggles to Fill the Gap

By Vic Bedoian

A voluntary buyout offer to 450 employees of the McClatchy newspaper chain was announced recently. Almost half of them took that offer. Not all were journalists or editors, but many were. Overall, McClatchy has downsized by 3.5% of its workforce. This underscores the dramatic decline in the nation’s print newspapers in recent decades.

The numbers are staggering. Circulation nationally has been cut by nearly half, according to the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media. From its peak in the early 1970s, some 60 million in print newspaper circulation has gone down to just above 30 million. Combined with a 23% drop in ad revenues for print newspapers, newspapers have begun to rapidly embrace a digital format to survive. That’s also the trend in California.

            The McClatchy newspapers have served the Central Valley for 162 years. Like other papers, they’re now making the digital transition and reducing their reporting staff.

In the year that Joe Kieta has been editor of the Fresno Bee, central California’s major newspaper has been going through changes. Part of that has been the retirement of two veteran reporters, who recently accepted a voluntary buyout. That follows the previous early retirement of the Bee’s environmental reporter. The Bee’s health and investigative reporters also have left for other jobs.

Kieta acknowledges the Bee’s print newspaper has been shrinking in size and shifting to feature reporting. But he insists that even though it’s downsizing, the Bee newsroom is still strong as it shifts to more of an online presence attractive to a younger audience, “We’re definitely getting a younger audience through digital, and a good place to look there is social media. So, where we have to be is where the audience has gone.

“And if you look at the followers we have on social media, I think you’ll find that they are younger and more diverse than probably the print readership has ever been at any point in the history of the Fresno Bee. And I think that’s a great thing because the whole point of what we do is to make sure that the work that we do every day is read.”

            Kieta also says that its online presence allows the Bee to present audio, video, graphics and database reporting that can better illustrate stories. He says the Bee is maintaining its role as a watchdog of local institutions and politicians.

Tim Drachlis was a reporter and editor for 32 years, most recently at the New York–based daily Newsday. He’s now a professor in Fresno State’s Department of Mass Communications and Journalism. He says that, for newspapers like the Bee, declining revenue leads to fewer reporters and stories.

“When you are a newspaper you only have two expenses, newsprint and people,” says Drachlis. “So, what’s happened to combat this loss of revenue is losing staffs and readers over time, and there’s all kinds of statistics out there over how much has been lost. When you lose reporters, what happens is fewer stories get covered—bottom line. You have competing demands and you cannot with fewer people get the same number of stories you got before.”

            Jeanne Segal is director of public relations and communication for the McClatchy newspapers, based in Washington, D.C. She says that, in general, the national chain is feeling the same pressure as the rest of the newspaper industry.

One estimate indicates that 70% of older Americans read a newspaper daily, whereas only 20% of young people do. Segal emphasizes that in order to survive, going digital is necessary, as is appealing to a younger audience. Segal indicates that research shows newspapers are essential to the social health of our cities in important ways.

“When a newspaper closes down, the cost to the community is [that] municipal loan rates are higher because bankers think that the risk is higher where newspapers aren’t operating in local communities,” notes Segal. “Civic engagement goes down. People vote less at lower rates when there’s no newspaper. And there’s more political polarization in communities when there’s no local newspaper. So, that’s a risk for our country, our democracy.”

            According to Forbes magazine, the good news is that 69% of the U.S. population is reading a newspaper in whatever form it appears. Drachlis says that an online presence does bring new ways of storytelling and is better adapted to breaking news. But he says those changes come at the expense of detailed beat reporting.

Drachlis adds that, although digital advertising revenue has grown, it does not generate revenue as effectively as it did in print newspapers. “What we were doing as an industry for 10 years is, we were thinking, okay, if we increase the number of page views, we can charge more for ad rates, kind of like an old model circulation idea. It hasn’t translated into financial gain, the increased page-views, because you don’t always know where your audience is. So, everyone is going to the subscription model.”

            Segal also stresses that subscriptions are a key to the survival of both print and Internet-based news media. “Well, I think people have to realize that local news is going to stay around as long as people support it. Especially now with print newspapers decline. You know, we’re replacing that with digital advertising revenue. But subscriptions are really going to fuel our growth and our presence. So, it’s really important if they want their local news outlet to thrive, they have to subscribe.”

            That’s a reality that Community Alliance readers are well aware of. And in the era of Donald Trump, people across the nation are finding out that newspapers, as well as other media, are crucial to holding the powerful accountable.

*****

Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@gmail.com.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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