Community Journalism Future of news

“Do you think newspapers are endangered?” A community journalism perspective

So what if someone asks:  “Do you think animals are endangered?”

There’s literally no answer to that.  We know that mountain gorillas, elephants, rhinos and tigers are critically endangered and we may well see their extinction in our lifetime.

But other animals exist in abundance – rats, rabbits, dogs, deer and hundreds of others.

And that’s the problem with the question newspaper people are asked so often:  “Do you think newspapers are endangered?”

Here’s your answer for the next time someone asks: “Depends.”

And mostly, it depends on the size of the market.  Metropolitan dailies are in a world of hurt because their business model doesn’t work anymore. Large cities are media-saturated and there are countless places to get the news – and countless places for businesses to advertise.

Just over a decade ago metros made money from display advertising, classified advertising and circulation.  The big display accounts realized that there were many other ways to get their message out.  Classified died, killed by Craigslist and similar sites.  And circulation declined in the face of many other places to get the news.  Of course, as circulation declined, advertisers noted the dwindling audience for their commercial messages.

Depressing, huh?  But the metro newspaper is like the endangered animal – don’t assume that because lowland gorillas may die out that we’ll soon have no dogs or deer or rabbits. They exist in superabundance.

And people who would never lump all animals together find it easy to lump all newspapers together.  Lots of folk don’t realize that there are some 7,000 paid circulation weekly papers and around 1,300 daily papers with circulations less than 25,000 in the U.S.

So that’s around 8,300 community newspapers with a circulation of more than 45 million readers. Counting the pass-along rate (the number of people who actually read the paper, as opposed to the number who purchase it), readership of community newspapers in the U.S. exceeds 150 million a week.

Or take Texas.  Our largest newspaper is the Dallas Morning News, with more than 400,000 circulation.  But the No. 10 paper in circulation, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, has just over 27,000 circulation.  So obviously, most newspapers in Texas and in the U.S. are community papers.

Community newspapers still dominate in smaller communities.  Rather than just being one voice among many as with their metro brethren, they are often the only game in town.  You want to know what happened at City Council?  Why school taxes are going up? How the local teams are doing? Who was involved in that big wreck on Center Street?  Why the old warehouse burned down? What’s for lunch tomorrow at your kid’s elementary school?  Check out the community paper – because you won’t find it anywhere else.

One rural publisher, in a speech to a journalism conference, put it this way:  “To our readers, we are not the newspaper, we are their newspaper. Down the block at Rogers Mini Stop, we sell more than a hundred papers every week. If our press run is late we get frantic calls from the Rogers family. They have a store full of irate customers who want their papers now…. We all know the traditional reasons — the little stories that never would be considered ‘news’ anyplace else. Our readers really care about those things.”

So when someone asks why newspapers are dying, explain that they are talking about a small – if highly visible – part of newspaper journalism.  Most papers are community papers, not metros.

And we’re doing quite well, thank you.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.