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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Nikki Usher: “Who Needs Newspapers?” It’s fewer people than publishers seem to believe

The George Washington professor argues small newspaper publishers are hanging on to false optimism that the importance of their work will save their business.

In the April/May issue of AJR, academics Paul Steinle and Sara Brown report on their travels to 50 newspapers in 50 states to find out what was happening in newspapers big and small, from The Seattle Times to the 12,000-circulation Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D. Their article (and full report at might be the most optimistic future-of-news report we’ve seen so far.

Newspapers are trying to avert economic disaster. And the steps that some are taking show signs of promise — boosts in overall circulation, jumps in digital subscribers. But my concern is that newsrooms are falsely holding on to the belief that their community members will continue to see them as their most important source of information.

This view may be leading newsrooms to false optimism. Consider what we learn from the profiles of some of these newspapers in the report.

“There are no such things as sleepy towns,” says (Grand Junction, Colo.) Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton, “there are only sleepy newspapers.” Citing corruption by city officials in Bell, Calif., a town that didn’t have a newspaper, Seaton vows, “That’s never going to happen here, because we’re watching.” So Bell’s corruption was really the fault of The Los Angeles Times for not doing a better job? Where do we begin with this statement?

Or consider this statement from Andy West, managing editor of Delaware State News (circulation 18,000 weekdays): “We provide information so people can make informed decisions and space every day so people can discuss what’s on their minds.”

And this statement from the Mountain Eagle, a weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky (circulation 6,000), referring to their former publishers: “Because Tom and Pat Gish spoke truth to power, their family was ostracized.”

This celebratory conviction of journalists doing God’s work to protect the community appears throughout every portrait of the 50 newspapers profiled. But there’s an underlying, unacknowledged fact: Local news, and in particular local news online, is not something people care about as much as local journalists might hope.

As my colleague Matt Hindman found using comScore data: Local news gets less than half of one percent of all pageviews in a local market. Hindman finds that local news sites attracted 8.3 to 17 pageviews per person per month. People spend about nine minutes a month with local news, he found. Many local news sites are still struggling, beset by problems — long load time, poor design, retention of top developers and multimedia producers — that make it hard to increase engagement in a fragmented news marked.

The Who Needs Newspapers report says the keys to success include community-service-driven reporters and ethically managed reporting. And in each of the 50 profiles, editors wax on about their commitment to covering the important public-service news that keep citizens coming back to the newspaper.

More bad news: This isn’t why people are reading newspapers.

Political scientists and communication scholars have long bemoaned the extent to which people don’t care about civic affairs. (Political scientist John Zaller has proposed a model of citizenship where people only pay attention to news that directly affects them — the so-called Burglar Alarm model of attentiveness.) And, as political scientist Markus Prior has demonstrated, citizens have comparatively little interest in political news and tend to pay more of their attention to entertainment news.

Or take this claim: “Hyperlocal Web sites are blossoming.” In fact, as Hindman found, the traffic of hyperlocal websites is generally so small that it is actually immeasurable by comScore (less than 1 percent of web traffic per market). So sure, these sites may be flourishing, but by what measure?

The report gives perhaps one of the most interesting depictions of how paywalls are being used at newspapers across America. This is important detail, and I encourage anyone interested in paywalls to take a look. But as the authors admit, there is no “single silver bullet” to solve the industry’s problems.

What might work for some newspapers who have developed a paywall in a small community may not work in a big-city metro newspaper — or vice versa. Some newspapers are using a paywall with free headlines and weather and a deeper site that features paid content. The risk is that when people find better ways to access the local weather, they may feel little need to check the local news site at all.

One finding in the report that occurs in many of the state newspapers portrayed is that circulation losses seem to stop — or at least halt, or maybe even receive a boost — when paywalls are erected. But these news organizations are still tapping into the people who still read newspapers; to really understand whether these circulation numbers are here to stay, they must conduct a robust demographic analysis of who, exactly, happens to be buying these new newspapers. Staunching the decline isn’t exactly a business model, either.

Finally, this upbeat report on the importance of journalism and the future of democracy is really is a portrait of 50 newspapers in 50 states. There’s little indication about how and why newspapers were chosen, and no real way to compare newspapers against each other. The background summaries of each newspaper have inconsistent profiles to help us figure out just how much attention and staff news organizations are spending on say, local government affairs versus entertainment reporting, making it difficult to get a true sense of just how committed these news organizations are to doing what they are saying they are doing (see here and here).

The report does offer a celebration of journalism’s “iron core” of reporting. What’s disappointing is that we hear little reflexive questioning of journalism itself. File this one under future-of-news reports that fail to give us a clear look into the future of news.

Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

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  • @digidickinson

    “So sure, these sites may be flourishing, but by what measure?”

    I know you’re highlighting what you think is a floor in the report but what do you think a measure might be?

  • West Seattle Blog

    You have a faulty inference as the underpinning here – that civic affairs are the province of newspapers, and no one else. There are actually newspapers that largely abandoned civic affairs, except to parachute in now and then. And markets like those are where the void is being filled by someone/something else. Meantime, would love to know what measure you would like to use to measure the success of sites like ours. We certainly are flourishing, averaging a million pageviews a month in a city neighborhood with maybe 40,000 homes/businesses (and no gimmicks to get those pageviews – no multi-click slideshows, no salacious topics, few story jumps since we publish in “blog” format), growing revenue, and in addition to readership, recognition (most recently the “best government reporting” award from a storied nonprofit group that serves the entirety of the county that includes Seattle). I would also challenge the suggestion that few care about local news. If done well, done on a consistently timely basis, done accurately and clearly, done with lots of listening to and collaborating with your community, it’s a draw. But: Frequent errors? Tone-deaf story choices/angles, and/or ignoring topics of major public interest? Bad writing? Readers won’t sit still for it. Organizations of all sizes should keep that in mind. – Tracy @ WSB

  • Carrie Brown-Smith

    I had similar thoughts when reading that AJR piece…thanks for writing this, Nikki. 

  • Don

    Community news in a daily paper isn’t easy to find. Community news is found in the community, and those communities with a weekly newspaper (hyperlocal in print) seem to be doing very well, thank you.

  • The Dude

    I love this article. It perfectly illustrates another ivory tower professor crying foul against something they don’t understand a single meaningful thing about.

    I wonder what Nikki is going to put on her resume for job duties during her tenure at George Washington after she loses her throne? Maybe, “I stuck my nose up at those willing to innovate until I continued to suck value from a dead industry.”

    Welcome to the Internet Nikki.

  • Austin

    I have to completely disagree with your take on local news because I happen to be in that market – so I have a pretty good idea actually of what is happening. Local news is up, less people care about national and world news. They want to know what is happening in their backyard, not what an AP reporter wrote that you can find in every paper across the country.

  • Clay Morgan

    I can’t say I entirely agree or disagree. 

    First, I don’t think you can really make any determination by looking at 50 newspapers when there are, what, 12,000 or 13,000 daily, weekly and niche newspapers out there.

    At the end of the day, the problem with journalism is about money. If you count print, web, digital, and mobile, many newspapers actually have more readers than ever. Yet, the ad dollars are fleeing.

    While small paper publishers will proclaim their strength as “local content,” they forget that their metro counterparts dominated local coverage before Craigslist decimated the classifieds and changed the newspaper world.

    As for hyperlocal sites? Many do generate a bit of an audience, but the problem comes back again – money. Are there many online only, hyper local sites that are generating enough revenue to pay its staff well and support great journalism?

    The reason for optimism is two-fold:
    1. Local publishers know their communities well. If they can harness that knowledge, it could really work to their advantage.
    2. Many newspaper companies, large and small, are working hard to innovate and get ahead the challenges we all face. There’s still work to do, but at least they are at work.

    One of the best things about the web is analytics. In the days of print only, you could only guess as to who was reading what. Now, we can delve into analytics and see which stories are getting traction. This is a powerful tool small papers should use more – analytics to direct coverage that will generate more readership.

  • Mthomas

    news papaer beancounters gave away newspaper readers one generation at a time. few if any newspapers have a actual marketing budget. I can rememebr when the Houston Chronic had a million dollar media budget just to educate young readers and remind folks why their investigative journalism was so important. We are still mired in a economic collapse born out of the real estate section of the newspaper. where was the reporting ? 

  • Apockiwi

    i think the largest problem with local newspapers is that newsroom salaries are so low, the only people working are those who cannot find a better gig. and as far as coverage and writing, you get what you pay for and readers – as the West Seattle Blog pointed out – won’t read bad writing. 
    newspapers seem to have forgotten that the news copy is their product and perhaps if they want more people to buy their product they should improve it. i mean, if you buy the cheapest ingredients you can find and the cheapest available cook to put it together, it doesn’t matter how cheap you make your pizza, no one is going to buy it because it still tastes terrible.
    it’s basic capitalism.
    when newspapers remember that, then and only then will people start reading them again.

  • Matthias Revers

    To measure whether readers “care” about local news according to clicks on stories, i.e. how much they read local news, is inadequate. The right question to ask is: Do people want to have organization(s) in place that create accountability among their elected officials on a daily basis, even if they don’t follow this process on a daily basis? Also, there is a difference between settled times and unsettled times, i.e. when important decisions or even normative questions are at stake, and local communities sure want to know what is going on in latter periods.. So in that sense they are right in assuming that what they do is important (the question HOW they do this is yet a different one), even if it is in part self-adulation.

  • briansteffens

    Having lived and worked in Manhattan, and worked closely with journalists and publishers in small towns across America, I find it troublesome how ill informed each is about the other. The misperceptions and stereotypes do nothing for discourse that might move us forward. 

    This post attempts to deconstruct a narrative about small town newspapers … “my concern is that newsrooms are falsely holding on to the belief that their community members will continue to see them as their most important source of information.”

    Well, in fact, in many or most of the communities served by about 8,000 weekly newspapers in America (and another several hundred small dailies), the newspaper IS not only the most important source of information, it is the ONLY source. Television doesn’t cover most of those towns except when the courthouse burns down or once a decade when the high school team makes the state playoffs. Radio is syndicated content from one of the coasts (or NPR or farm reports). When the young bloggers graduate high school, they’re off to college or the large city for a job. Which brings us to …

    “Local news, and in particular local news online, is not something people care about as much as local journalists might hope.

    “As my colleague Matt Hindman found using comScore data: Local news gets less than half of one percent of all pageviews in a local market. Hindman finds that local news sites attracted 8.3 to 17 pageviews per person per month. People spend about nine minutes a month with local news, he found.”

    Um, really? Because citizens in small towns aren’t interested in local news online, we’re to surmise that they aren’t interested in local news? I find that a leap with no substance to back it up. Many local newspapers may be lacking advertisers or revenue, but the loss of readers is far less than the hit from a tanked economy. I’d much prefer 75% of adults in town spending 40 minutes reading each edition of my paper than 10% of the market’s adults spending a few minutes reading fewer than four pages … and so would my advertisers.

    In small towns, the lack of online readership isn’t an automatic negative. In certain markets it may be. But in many markets, that’s just fine.

    It’s articles like this that attempt to paint a diverse community of 8,000+ news products as all alike … that prompts too many of us to make false assumptions and statements. 

    Check out actual community newspaper readership stats from the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Center for Advanced Social Research, conducted for the National Newspaper Association six times in the past decade. Similar research was conducted for Suburban Newspaper Association (now Local Media Association). More facts, less fiction there.

    Then we get this: “… editors wax on about their commitment to covering the important public-service news that keep citizens coming back to the newspaper. More bad news: This isn’t why people are reading newspapers.”Political scientists and communication scholars have long bemoaned the extent to which people don’t care about civic affairs.”

    Says who? Have you ever sat in a small town coffee shop or diner at breakfast and listened to the conversation at the counter or nearby tables? Or at Rotary or Kiwanis? They may not care too much about national politics (but you’d be surprised), but they sure do have an opinion and follow local politics, zoning, development, eminent domain dramas and much more. Local politics DO directly affect them, and they follow it. And the paper is the only entity serving that need.

    Finally, it’s suggested we disregard this snapshot of 50 papers. That’s why I’d suggest you visit the national research. But note this, the average circulation of weeklies is about 5,000 circulation, and you’ll find that the local publishers have a better “feel” for and connection to that community than most any online news operation. The average circulation for dailies is about 15,000. So when writing from NYC, LA, Chicago or Dallas, take a little more time to learn about who and where you’re writing about when getting outside the metro city limits. That’s all the WhoNeedsNewspapers duo were trying to do.