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May 27, 2022

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From the Newsroom: New year, same challenges

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

It’s a new year, but the newspaper business is facing the same problems as it did in 2021. And 2020. And in the years before that.

Our traditional business model has changed. Our industry is struggling to find a sustainable way to gather and tell the local news, while providing a middle-class living for our journalists and a decent return on investment for our owners.

This reinvention has been going on for more than a decade now, and it will be several more years before it plays out. Spoiler alert: I think there will be a place for locally owned news organizations like The Columbian.

I’m not sure about the big chains that now dominate our industry. Companies like Gannett, Digital First Media and Lee Enterprises are very profit-driven, and they have been accused of strip-mining their news operations in order to provide short-term gains to stockholders.

Apparently, the CBS News program “60 Minutes” is going to take a closer look on Jan. 30 with a segment called “The fading future of local newspapers.”

I watched the preview. An editor talked about how local news unites communities. You can see who died, who graduated from high school and whose kid was the hero of the big game. Will that shared community be lost to the next generation?

Not without a fight, at least from The Columbian. Although we’re smaller than we used to be, our staff is still out there telling Clark County’s stories. Want to know where to get a great breakfast burrito? Wondering how the Hudson’s Bay girls basketball team did against Hockinson? Concerned about the apparent effort to gerrymander county council districts? We recently wrote about all of that.

Although it’s important to know about Russia’s plans for Ukraine, I would contend that the local news is more important to the average Clark County consumer.

The question then becomes how to cover the costs of gathering and presenting it.

Traditionally, at least three-quarters of the costs were covered by advertising revenue. If you’ve lived here and read The Columbian for 30-plus years, like I have, you’ll remember the full-page ads from stores like Koplan’s Furniture and Meier & Frank. Car dealers took multiple pages on the weekends, and there were pages and pages of help wanted and real estate ads.

The rise of big-box chain stores, and later online shopping, took away most display ads, and websites like Craigslist have reduced the classifieds to nearly nothing.

Last year, a report from Pew Research Group showed newspaper advertising revenue declined from $49.4 billion in 2005 to an estimated $8.8 billion in 2020. It’s still falling.

That led to cutting more than half of all U.S. newsroom jobs. Wage stagnation is a problem, too. Pew found that newspaper reporters earned a median annual wage of $36,381 in 2012 and $35,950 in 2020.

At The Columbian, we have fared a little better. We’ve been able to retain more than half of our newsroom positions, and last year, for the first time in years, we gave raises to our lowest-paid journalists.

Our industry increasingly relies on circulation revenue, which for the first time is more than half of our income. Although circulation is down, reader revenue has been slightly up as U.S. newspapers raised prices. We raised our newsstand single-copy prices this month to match The Oregonian.

Looking to the future, there are other ways the newspaper business may be able to find more revenue. Some newspapers, such as The Seattle Times, are finding success with community funded journalism, where charitable donations offset the direct costs of reporters’ salaries. Congress is considering some bills that would benefit our industry. And our online subscription revenue is increasing.

I’ll be watching “60 Minutes” with interest, but I won’t need a handkerchief.


This column has been update to reflect that the “60 Minutes” segment will air on Jan.30.

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