A few weeks ago, a Rochester Post-Bulletin reporter contacted me regarding my thoughts on a report presented by the Minnesota Center for Rural Policy & Develop-ment (MCRPD) in April 2023.
I told the reporter I was glad he contacted me, because I had actually sent an email to Julie Tesch, president & CEO of the MCRPD. I shared my email to Julie with the P-B reporter, so he could see where I was coming from.
As I indicated to the Julie Tesch and her team at MCRPD, their report, titled “The disappearing rural newspaper,” seemed to focus solely on the failings of corporate-owned newspapers. They completely ignored what successful newspapers are doing in the State of Minnesota.
And, they agreed with me. MCRPD researcher Marnie Werner replied to my inquiry, “Hi, Jason, and thanks so much for your email! To tell you the truth, as I was researching this, virtually all the research I found was addressing the issue of larger, corporate-owned newspapers (and in fact, very little was even addressing small weekly papers), but as I talked to publishers of independent papers around the state, I could see that these newspapers were operating quite differently.”
On August 12, 2023, the P-B published a story titled, “Ghost Papers, Fading Stories,” but they left out a lot of what I felt were important points I shared with them about my perception of the state of the newspaper industry.
I’ve been in the newspaper business for more than 30 years, and I’ve observed two paths. Corporate-owned and family-owned.
There are the corporate-owned newspapers that seem to follow each other like lemmings. If one has an idea to cut expenses or introduce new revenue ideas, other corporate-owned newspaper groups will follow in their footsteps.
Many corporate-owned newspapers have cut their staff to barebones. As of December 2022, the St. Cloud Times, owned by Gannett Co., Inc., reduced their newsroom to two reporters to cover a community of 200,000 residents. That’s an impossible expectation. They are setting themselves up for failure.
There are daily newspapers I know of that once had 250 employees and now have less than 25 employees – a reduction of 90% of their staff.
Companies cannot cut their way to profits without compromising quality. You cannot cut your staff and expect to produce the same quality and volume of work. Eventually, customers recognize diminished quality, which results in diminished value and loss of customers. It’s a self-inflicted perpetual demise.
Most corporate-owned newspapers will run the same news content in all of their newspapers. The content loses the local flavor and authenticity of the community. Local news isn’t a one size fits all. Every community is different.
And, as these companies are reducing their workforce, they are outsourcing their graphic design work to companies in India. I’ve written about this in the past, pointing out so many reasons this is not only bad business for newspapers but for the local economy. We have a team of graphic designers that helps local businesses with their ad creation, almost like an ad agency. We design logos, brochures, rack cards, and advertisements to help businesses build their brand and market their business. When people trust you with one thing, they start to trust you with other responsibilities. We have local people serving local people, and it shows. And, our newspaper employees spend money at the local grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants. They pay taxes, support our schools, and may even show their support through volunteerism and donations to local churches. Every individual on our team is not only vital to our company’s success; they play an important role in the economy of the communities we serve.
So many corporate-owned newspapers push digital on readers and advertisers, whether they want it or not. People still want the print product. We hear it all the time. We have readers picking up extra copies of the Fillmore County Journal because they had a family member in the newspaper. Printing off a page from a website just isn’t quite the same. As one reader shared with me, they love the tactile experience of print.
Cutting frequency of print has become the norm with so many daily newspapers, which begs the question: Are they still considered “daily” newspapers? Thankfully, the Star-Tribune is still published in print seven days a week. Oh, and when a newspaper cuts their number of print days, but keeps their subscription rates the same, that’s not going to end well.
Most subscription-based newspapers have established paywalls, so readers have metered access (limit to three articles). In this day and age, the reality is that if people encounter a story they want to read and they get stone-walled with a requirement to pay for access, they are most likely going to see if they can find the news elsewhere. The local TV or radio stations know this, and while they are not writing the best quality news (my opinion), if they provide it for free, they are going to draw an audience. This is why we distribute our newspaper content in print and online for free. We want everyone to have access to the same information, which makes for better informed citizens and voters.
Here’s a short list of corporate-owned newspaper groups that put profits above people.
• Digital First/Tribune (Alden)
• Lee/BH Media
Just to name a few.
And, those are the newspapers that everyone hears about, when they are making newsroom cuts, losing revenue, and failing their communities with inadequate news coverage. They make the rest of us look bad, because they are corporations that don’t care about people.
When corporations buy newspapers, bad things can happen.
A few years ago, I gave a presentation at a newspaper conference in Hershey, Penn., and the title of my presentation was, “How we treat people is more important than making money.” I was speaking to a room full of newspaper executives. Suits. A company is not a brand or a logo. A company is the people. So many of these corporations have leadership that lacks emotional intelligence.
Are we perfect? No, we should never feel we’ve arrived. We can always do better.
And, we know that if we are not hitting on all cylinders in our news coverage, our readers will let us know. We are extremely accessible, responsive, and adaptable.
There are so many family-owned weekly newspapers in our region doing outstanding work for the communities they serve.
• Mower County Independent, owned by Dan Evans and his family in Le Roy, Minn.
• Zumbrota News-Record, owned by Pete Grimsrud and his family in Zumbrota, Minn.
• Winona Post, owned by Patrick Marek and his family in Winona, Minn.
These are just a few, but there are many others in our region that do a fantastic job of serving their communities with fresh local authentic news on a regular basis. From my conversations with them, they are enthusiastic and optimistic about the outlook of their newspaper and communities.
And, I know they work long days and put their heart and soul into every single newspaper they publish. So, does our team at the Fillmore County Journal.