Jan. 25, 2020 — If you look in the top left corner of the front page of this newspaper, you’ll see a special logo celebrating the 130th anniversary of the Siuslaw News.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak on this subject, and the particular challenges faced by community newspapers like the Siuslaw News and the Cottage Grove Sentinel, where I am also the managing editor.
Truth be told, community newspapers have been hit particularly hard by the economic challenges confronting local journalism, which raises questions about whether these papers still serve as the lynchpins of local reporting in their communities into the future — or whether other types of outlets will step up to take their place.
Harvard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab recently conducted a study that explored which types of news outlets are the most significant producers of journalism in 100 randomly sampled communities across the U.S.
The study produced an inventory of all media outlets located within these 100 communities, and gathered a week’s worth of news stories found on these outlets’ home pages (which was more than 16,000 stories in all).
Each story was analyzed to determine whether they met each of the following three criteria:
1) Was the story original?
2) Was the story local?
3) Did the story address a critical information need?
The results showed that, despite the economic hardships that local newspapers have endured, they remain — by far — the most significant providers of journalism in their communities.
And while there had been predictions that online-only journalism would compensate for the cutbacks and closures affecting local print newspapers, the study showed that those expectations have fallen well short of predictions.
The study found, for instance, that while local newspapers accounted for roughly 25 percent of the local media outlets in the sample, they accounted for nearly 60 percent of the original news stories collected in the 100-city sample. In fact, local newspapers produced more of the reporting in their communities than television, radio and online-only outlets combined.
When the results were compared, online-only news sources accounted for just 10 percent of original news content within their communities.
Guess where 60 percent of the remaining content came from?
That’s right: Community newspaper sources.
Over the course of the last 10 years, the newspaper industry was hit by a trifecta of challenges.
1) Rising cost of newsprint.
A months-long spike in the price of paper, driven by federal tariffs on Canadian suppliers, slammed newspapers and drove the costs of news print into double-digit increases beginning in 2017 and lasting through late 2018.
Newsprint is typically a publication’s second-biggest operating expense after labor. The result was a wholesale cutting of journalists at newspapers across the country.
According to News Media Alliance, nearly half of the 272 newspaper publishers surveyed said they had laid off news staff as a direct result of newsprint price increases.
In addition, some 71 percent said they had also cut back the number of pages they published each day.
Publishers reported an average annual newsprint cost increase of $176,818
Over the past 15 years, more than one-in-five newspapers in the U.S. has closed, with half of those closures occurring in the last four years. And for the papers that remained open, the number of journalists working for them has been cut in half, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism.
This has led to the rise of “ghost papers,” which are papers produced outside of their communities and patched together with canned news. In many cases, communities across the country have been left without any local paper at all.
Number 2 in this unfortunate trifecta:
2) The two-edged sword of social media.
On the plus side, social media has allowed smaller newspapers like this one to be more relevant and timely by providing us a way to share important information and news stories on a daily basis by posting them online and sharing them to our social media sites.
The downside is that social media has ushered in an age of unverified information or opinion presented as fact. The result has been a general mistrust of media as a whole when it doesn’t conform to a specific narrative.
I can tell you that nearly a quarter of our time is spent investigating or dispelling rumors that begin on social media.
While social media has provided small newspapers with an impactful way of getting information out to the communities they serve, it has also made our job as journalists harder by introducing another layer of information that needs to be clarified and — more often than not — dispelled through additional resources and investigation.
The third challenge journalists face:
3) The politicalization of news and blurring of opinion with fact.
This actually began more than a decade ago with the advent of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle, which has eagerly been filled with news “analysis” and opinion programming.
The result has been the tribalization of information as people actively seek — or are tagged with — the news that best supports a specific narrative or political leaning. Coupled with social media, the distrust of journalism at the national level has trickled down to even small community newspapers as political divisiveness on both sides attempt to pressure local news to reflect a specific narrative.
So, how has the Siuslaw News and other community newspapers survived? And what does the future hold for community journalism?
Since becoming editor a little over three years ago, my goal has been — and continues to be — a simple one:
To provide the community with the sound of its own voice.
Arthur Miller once wrote that “A good Newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” I feel the same applies to a good community newspaper. It should be made up of reporting that reflects facts and perspectives from all sides of the conversation, along with the opportunity for individuals to express their viewpoints in letters and editorials through the Opinion page.
We need to celebrate our achievements as a community as well as recognize our failures by being both chroniclers and watchdogs.
The fact that I receive complaints from both republicans and democrats, liberals and conservatives for leaning “too far left” or “too far right” (sometimes on the same day) tells me we are somewhere in the middle — which is where we should be to remain objective.
I think that is a big part of why we have survived and, over the last few years, thrived and grown despite the challenges.
As for the future, though the number of legacy newspapers like the Siuslaw News and Cottage Grove Sentinel — which celebrated its 130th anniversary last year — have declined, those that remain have done so because they have yet to be displaced as a vital source of local journalism.
And if the Harvard University study I mentioned earlier is any indication, the emergence of online-only and “ghost newspapers” as comparable sources of local journalism still appears to be a very long way off.