Community newspapers vital to the news food chain

L■ By David Porter / Contributed

ast week, I got the question. The same question I get probably a dozen times a year.
I think it’s natural that we all think we have some idea about various professions. A lot of it is driven by what we read or see in the news.
Like police work. Ah it must be tough to be a cop these days. The comment/question is followed by examples of police activities that have made the news in one form or another. But, we really don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer if we have never been one. The job carries risks even in small departments, but not all police jobs are the same across the country or even within a single department or precinct. We make general assumptions, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.
Same with any profession. We have an idea of the life of a Silicon Valley tech worker. But we don’t know.
We’ve all been through school, so we know about teaching, right? I’ve taken education classes and observed in classrooms, but until I married a teacher, I can tell you, I was pretty clueless about public schools.
And so it is with newspapers, which leads to the question: Why would anyone want to be in the newspaper business today? And follow-up question No. 1: Isn’t online advertising cheaper and better? And follow-up No. 2: Why don’t you put your newspaper online for free; wouldn’t more people read it?
Readers don’t pay the bills. Subscribers do. Advertisers do. One can argue, more readers, more ads. It might work that way in larger markets, but it doesn’t pan out that way for a lot of papers.
In many instances, online advertising is cheaper and sometimes even free. Isn’t that better? Well, in some cases, yes. Websites like Craigslist and eBay have been successful in luring business away from newspapers. In those advertising models, you get a more focused relationship between buyer and seller. It’s not about how many people see the ad; it’s about matching people up. If you’re looking for a particular antique, eBay is a good place to look. If you’re a sadist looking for a masochist, Craigslist is a good place to start.
That’s the kind of thing that made Yellow Pages advertising successful back in the day. Nobody would sit and read the Yellow Pages, but if you were looking for a specific type of business, you could consult those pages. Most of that advertising has been lost to the internet.
But most internet advertising these days is based on clicks. Some is targeted by demographic information, but a lot is just flapping in the wind. You know those silly quizzes that are frequently shared via Facebook? – “Test your IQ.” “Only three out of 10 people will know these answers.” “Find out what your inner color is.” – They’re fun little time wasters, but their real purpose is bait clicking. The more they can get people to click through the pages, the more money they make by the advertisers on that page. And that advertising is doing little good.
Same with pop-up ads. How many times do you click the X to get rid of a pop-up without even looking at what is being advertised?
The conversion rate online, according to a company called MediaBids, is 1-2 percent. That means, out of all the people who click on an online ad or call a number presented online, only 1-2 percent will buy the product. The conversion rate for newspapers, according to MediaBids, is 40 percent. People who inquire about a product from a print ad are much more likely to actually be interested in that product.
The reach of online sites is overstated, I think. For instance, I have about as many “followers” on my Facebook newspaper pages as I have newspaper subscribers. But I can see how many of them actually view the posts. It’s usually about a third. By contrast, newspapers are shared; for every newspaper sold, there’s an average of 2.1 readers.
Not everyone is online every day, and just because they “liked” a page, doesn’t mean they’re actually reading it. But if they paid for a subscription to the newspaper, they’re more likely to pick it up and peruse it. Maybe they don’t read every page, but they at least flip through it. A Facebook post typically has a lifespan of a few hours while a weekly newspaper has a lifespan of several days.
We use online to expand our newspaper reach. Facebook or a website can be useful for photo galleries, late-breaking news or “big news” like a bank robbery.
I like to think that newspapers still play an important role in our society, and not just because I own one. TV personality John Oliver, who advocates for newspapers, noted on his program that much of the news online and even in broadcast media, originates with newspapers. He said, “The media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.”
He also made the comment that not having reporters at local government meetings would be like taking the teacher out of a seventh grade classroom and letting the kids supervise themselves.
Yes, there are sometimes problems with reporters and news outlets. Just as there are a few bad cops, a few bad teachers and problems in any profession. But overall, newspapers, especially small, community newspapers, serve a vital purpose in watching over government, providing archival historical information, delivering consumers to advertisers and keeping refrigerators decorated with schoolkids’ accomplishments.
You must have some affinity for newspapers yourself; chances are you’re holding one right now.

© 2107 by David Porter, who can be reached at porter@ramblinman.us. The newspaper industry has certainly changed over the past 30 years, but news consumption is at an all-time high.

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