Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Newspapers are Dying, You Say?

[editor's note: Tomorrow, February 4, Dr. Joyce Baugh will speak about her book, The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy over Desegregation, at 7:00 pm in the Park Library Auditorium. A reception will follow in the Clarke.] 


Newspapers are Dying, You Say?

by Frank Boles

You hear it almost everywhere; newspapers are either dead or dying. Everything is migrating to the Internet and old-fashioned, printed papers are a thing of the past.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the Michigan Press Association. Turns out a funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery. Profits. In some cases, record profits. This profitability is not evenly distributed. The big-city, metropolitan papers, about ten percent of the newspaper titles in America, are losing subscribers and income. But newspapers in small communities are doing well. Many are setting profit records. How is this possible to lose money in the big city but make it in small towns?

America has about 20,000 newspapers. A bare majority are small, independently-owned publications, with an additional sizable minority in relatively small newspaper groups – less than five newspaper titles. Most of these independent papers or small chains are weeklies or dailies in small markets. Those that are most profitable relentlessly focus on local news. They realize that their readers can turn to CNN or the New York Times for national and international coverage. But CNN and the New York Times won’t have much to say about last night’s city council meeting or the prospects for the local high school football team. To find out about those stories, people who live in these communities still buy a newspaper.

Some of the local newspapers collected by the Clarke

Also interesting are two additional characteristics of the most successful of these small papers. The trick is not just local news. It is well-written, well-laid-out newspapers. When non-subscribers are polled about why they don’t buy a paper, their two biggest complaints are not enough local news (38%) and poor writing (22%). This survey corroborated what another speaker had said earlier in the conference, there is still money to be made in print newspapers, but only if you display journalistic excellence, with interesting, well-written stories, displayed in an easy-to-read manner.

Thousands of reels of Michigan
newspapers on microfilm
in the Clarke stacks
For more than fifty years, the Clarke Historical Library has worked to preserve and distribute Michigan’s historical, local newspapers. I have been asked, more than once, what happens when all those papers go out of business? The answer it seems is that they aren’t going to go out of business. Better yet, the way to stay in business is not to cut staff and pages, but to devote time and energy to excellent coverage of local events. Newspapers with that emphasis are not only performing an important community service, they are creating the next generation of newspapers that will, in a few years, become important community history.

Having spent two days with journalists, editors, and publishers, I came away with the feeling that this aspect of the Clarke Historical Library mission, preserving and making available Michigan’s historical newspapers, will grow, especially as the smaller regional newspapers the Library documents thrive by engaging in quality local journalism. The better each paper is, the better the history we can eventually share with communities around the state.

It is  certainly an exciting time to be working with Michigan’s local newspapers. If you are interested in joining in, take a look at our blog post explaining how you can help to bring historic Michigan newspapers online for people all over the word to explore.