Shrinking Printed Newspapers are Changing to Survive
As newspapers are losing advertising revenue to the Internet and other competition, the survivors are innovating to keep in business and keep reporting the news.
Hundreds of thousands of newspapers roll off printing presses in South Carolina nearly every day. But those printing days are fewer than they once were, and the number of papers printed is smaller than it once was. Nationwide, the newspaper industry has been shrinking for years, at least as far as the number of printed copies is concerned.
The situation in South Carolina is no different, especially with smaller papers, which, according to Jen Madden, co-executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, have been hard hit by competition from the Internet, and more recently, by the COVID pandemic and other factors.
“We’ve had 10 papers close since the start of the pandemic,” said Madden. “Some of that has been folks that have retired and they haven’t had a succession plan. Some, competitive markets. There are other papers, you know. Can Manning support three newspapers? I don’t know. But largely, we’ve seen major changes in advertising and circulation, especially over the past decade, and that has really affected some of our member newspapers and caused some closures.”
University of South Carolina journalism Professor Michele Laroche added to the list of reasons for the decline, and said the bottom line for these closings is money, or the lack of it.
“You can see in the last few years, especially with COVID, how companies have had to cut back on advertising, and it becomes a slippery slope to the bottom because as you lose subscribers, advertisers have less incentive to advertise, so it just kinda snowballs,” she said. Another cause Laroche cited is that “a lot of small newspapers took on debt in the last couple of decades, and so they maybe could be self-sufficient without that debt. But with that debt there’s too many expenses for them to cover.”
The news is not all bad, however. Madden said two local papers actually started up last year, and in other places, closings didn’t take place, but change – which is inevitable in any industry – did.
“Instead of closing…the Lexington County Chronicle paper was sold to the folks that own the Sumter Item. We also have the Bennettsville paper sold to a company in North Carolina. So there are closures, but there are also a lot of good things happening. We’ve seen some start-ups. So I think we’re always an industry in flux.”
Laroche believes many people don’t realize just how vital local journalism is to a community. She noted its important role as a “watchdog” for readers.
“There’s really good research that shows that cities without local newspapers are less efficient, and that costs taxpayers real money. So in other words, a local govt where there’s no newspaper, the cost of borrowing is higher because the government is less efficient because there’s no watchdog. And that’s real money that local taxpayers are having to pay because there’s no newspaper.
“When there’s a newspaper, there’s a watchdog. Government’s more efficient, they tend to behave better, and borrowing costs are lower,” she said. “They’re less of a risk from a lending standpoint.”
The same is true from the business standpoint, said the professor. “When you have a local newspaper covering local business, local business will tend to treat its employees better. There’s less fraud, both on a local level and on a national level. So this kind of reporting is really important to, I think, me as a taxpayer, not only as a journalist but as a taxpayer.”
Madden called local newspapers the glue that strengthens their communities. “When you have someone out there covering school boards and government action and high school sports and the weddings and obituaries, and just everything that’s happening, the newspaper is where it’s at, it’s all there,” she enthused. “It’s boots on the ground coverage by people that live in your community and know your community. No one’s gonna cover Chester or Barnwell or Bennettsville like the local journalists that are covering the news for the newspaper there.”
South Carolina has only one true news desert, a county with no newspaper, and that’s Allendale County – though it does have a radio station. Madden added that quality journalism is critical to a functioning democracy. “There have been so many recent studies that have shown that when a newspaper dies, or goes away, when there’s not local news, misinformation spreads. Corruption grows. Citizens are less likely to care, they’re less likely to vote. So it’s not a good thing.”
Both Madden and Laroche said the good news is that while some papers have cut their days of publication, many have bolstered their online presence and used innovative techniques to keep revenue coming in. Madden added that most communities have stuck with their local papers and continue to support them because local readers realize that newspapers are vital to a thriving and healthy community.
“Freedom of the press in enshrined in the Constitution. It is that important,” she stressed. “And I think there’s something to be said, that you can have a local product, with local reporters, that’s curated by a trusted local editor, where they curate the news all in one place and they tell you, ‘this is important. You should know about this stuff.’ And that’s your local newspaper.”