Newspapers Are Dying – What About Blogs?

Iowa City Press Citizen Jan. 23, 2019

Every Wednesday evidence newspapers are dying is delivered to the end of our driveway.

I’ve asked the Iowa City Press Citizen to stop this delivery as we get a digital subscription. They can’t. They deliver the paper free on ad days to boost circulation numbers upon which advertising revenue depends.

The whole newspaper business seems to be on life support: advertising revenue diverted on line, subscriptions down, profitability gone. If governments could forego publication of notices, minutes and official announcements, they would. It would sink many low circulation weeklies in small cities. There are no easy answers and in many homes it is not a question: how can newspapers survive?

It is a big commitment to read a daily newspaper. I know because only in semi-retirement could I read two dailies — The Iowa City Press Citizen and the Cedar Rapids Gazette. With life being a time crunch to address other priorities, it is easier and more relevant to read from a score of internet news sites on the go than be restricted to a single newspaper. That’s part of the problem.

It goes deeper than that. Steve Cavendish of the Washington Post wrote today,

Print revenue is down, digital and mobile revenue aren’t nearly enough, and now a hedge fund promising even deeper cuts wants to acquire the company (Gannett). If the future of corporate news operations looks bleak, that’s because it is.

Newspapers have been under pressure since a heyday that ended in the late 1980s. Hedge funds owning newspapers is the final butcher block upon which the pieces get cut up and sold to the highest bidder. People continue to want news, so what is the next evolution?

There is talk about blogs being a potential supplement or replacement for formal news organizations. I doubt it for a couple of reasons.

Part of what makes good reporting possible is the financial backing of a large organization. Even though news organizations are diminished in that regard, a blogger is either self-financed or just barely capitalized. Pat Rynard of Iowa Starting Line took “this month off from writing to handle our financial and administrative side of things.” Rynard is proving the model of blogging as a political news source, however, he is one guy. Whether his operation is scalable to the level of a news organization is an open question. He reported today he should be solvent through the February 2020 Iowa caucuses, which is a positive. As much as I’d like to see him succeed with sustainable funding and revenue, he faces a lonely and uphill struggle compared to a stressed but viable news organization with adequate financing.

Laura Belin, publisher of Bleeding Heartland, is self financed so her struggle is not financing but access. Associated Press reported today she is trying to get a press pass in the Iowa House of Representatives. AP’s Ryan Foley wrote,

Belin applied for formal credentials for the first time to cover this session, which would grant her work space and easier access to briefings with key lawmakers, among other things.

She was denied but is persisting with her request. Judging from the quality of Belin’s previous coverage a press pass would make logistics easier, although her coverage already sets a high journalistic standard. She breaks news and covers topics newspapers don’t. This leads to another issue, readership.

Foley reported Bleeding Heartland gets 1,500 or more unique daily views while in session. That is great exposure for a blog, however, not nearly what a newspaper, with a print circulation of thousands would get between print and on line. Once I got more than 3,500 unique website views when I freelanced for the Iowa City Press Citizen. My average was much lower than that, but print edition plus on line clicks was always more than 10,000: hard to beat for a blogger. While I stop in at Bleeding Heartland and Iowa Starting Line frequently, they do not yet have the general audience penetration to compete with formal news organizations. As political blogs with a devoted following, maybe they don’t need it.

The first job I held was as a paper boy delivering the Des Moines Register. There weren’t many sales and it was a long walk between deliveries. When I ran into customers while making collections I got feedback on what they liked and didn’t like about the newspaper. (Mostly they didn’t like Donald Kaul’s Over the Coffee). Those days are mostly gone.

I hope the Iowa City Press Citizen survives the next acquisition. They already got rid of their big facility off North Dodge Street and are tucked away in rental space above a couple of restaurants. The idea of delivering free papers to boost circulation sounds like it came from an accounting meeting. I’m reminded every Wednesday the newspaper business as I knew it has dim prospects for the future.