How are newspapers doing? It depends on who you ask
By Kevin Slimp
It was a lot like other experiences I’ve had at conventions over the past couple of years. In March, as I gathered my backpack to head out of the room where I’d just spoken in Madison, Wisconsin, a man approached and said, “I really appreciated what you had to say. May I ask a question?”
I was in no rush. Immediately ahead was a five-hour drive to Des Moines, where I was speaking to a newspaper conference the next day.
“Sure,” I answered. “Of course. How can I help?”
His question was straightforward and deliberate. “What’s really going on at newspapers across the country?”
I knew it wouldn’t be a quick answer. I had been standing for two hours and there were a couple of chairs in the corner of the room, near the door. I suggested this was a conversation that required sitting.
As I began to answer his question, the area began to fill. Soon, there were a dozen or more publishers, editors and others standing in a semicircle, intently listening in on the conversation. I appreciated their interest. It’s a bit humbling to know people sincerely care what I think about anything.
I shared my thoughts with the group. Heads nodded as I mentioned most locally-owned papers seemed to be doing fine. Big metros, not so much.
Someone spoke up, “My paper is part of a small local group. That’s how it is with us.”
I went into more detail about the state of newspapers of various sizes and types, then explained that I should get on my way to Des Moines. As I began to walk toward the hallway, I heard a familiar refrain, “Thank you for what you do for all of us.”
You know, I hear that at every newspaper and convention I visit. I appreciate that people think that way. But the truth is I’m not really sure what I do. I study. I do research. I visit papers. I asked what’s going on. Then I share the information. It seems a lot like what journalists at newspapers do every day.
As I was leaving the Concourse Hotel in Madison – one of the nicest I’ve stayed at, by the way – I glanced at my email and text messages. There was an email from a magazine reporter in New York, asking if I had five minutes to talk.
I recognized the name. He had interviewed me a week or two earlier for a story he was writing about the state of newspapers. During the interview, when he shared who he had spoken with while doing his research, he mention Iris Chyi, University of Texas, and other names that could fill a “Who’s Who” list of researchers in the area of newspaper health.
In his brief email, he mentioned his editors were skeptical concerning the content of his story. Apparently the people he was interviewing were consistent in their findings. Most locally-owned newspapers are doing well. The same is not always true of other newspapers. The further the newspaper from the owner or ownership group, the more likely the paper isn’t doing well. That has been a consistent finding of my research for the past few years.
A few days later, the reporter and I talked on the phone and he asked if I could point him to some data that he could show to his editors. I did, reluctantly. I was reluctant because I’m starting to feel outnumbered. There seems to be stories on social media and in national publications almost daily about how one large newspaper group after another is falling apart. As I reminded this reporter, most newspapers aren’t part of large national groups. Most newspapers are still locally owned.
I didn’t even mention the publishers who I’ve run into over the past few weeks who are starting or have just started new papers. Frankly, I really didn’t care what the magazine ran, if anything.
Relaxing in the lobby of the hotel in Des Moines the next day, a publisher approached and I invited him to visit. He told me his newspaper is enjoying significant growth. It has been growing, he told me, several years in a row. The past year has been the best yet. Then – you guessed it – he said, “Thank you so much for what you do for our industry.”
I wanted to thank him. It’s folks like him – like the publishers, editors and journalists I met in Wisconsin and Iowa over the weekend – who give me the energy to keep up the fight. They remind me of others I’ve met recently in Wyoming, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont, Kansas and places I’ve momentarily forgotten.
One publisher in Iowa came up to the podium to tell me something. “Remember ten years ago when the university dean told you he didn’t think there would be a single newspaper left in America in ten years?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I remember.”
“You should mention that in every column you write. It’s been over ten years and we’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere,” he told me.
Consider yourself told.