Local Dead Tree Tabloids: Endangered Like Some Firs

February 27, 2024

green-dino_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb humanoid. No smart software required.

A relic of a bygone era, the local printed newspaper is dead. Or is it? A pair of recent articles suggest opposite conclusions. The Columbia Journalism Review tells us, “They Gave Local News Away for Free. Virtually Nobody Wanted It.” The post cites a 2021 study from the University of Pennsylvania that sought ways to boost interest in local news. But when over 2,500 locals were offered free Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or Philadelphia Inquirer subscriptions, fewer than two percent accepted. Political science professor Dan Hopkins, who conducted the study with coauthor Tori Gorton, was dismayed. Reporter Kevin Lind writes:

“Hopkins conceived the study after writing a book in 2018 on the nationalization of American politics. In The Increasingly United States he argues that declining interest and access to local news forces voters, who are not otherwise familiar with the specifics of their local governments’ agendas or legislators, to default to national partisan lines when casting regional ballots. As a result, politicians are not held accountable, voters are not aware of the issues, and the candidates who get elected reflect national ideologies rather than representing local needs.”

Indeed. But is it too soon to throw in the towel? Poynter offers some hope in its article, “One Utah Paper Is Making Money with a Novel Idea: Print.” The Deseret News’ new digest is free but makes a tidy profit from ads. Not only that, the move seems to have piqued interest in actual paid subscriptions. Imagine that! Writer Angela Fu describes one young reader who has discovered the allure of the printed page:

“Fifteen-year-old Adam Kunz said he discovered the benefits of physical papers when he came across a free sample from the Deseret News in the mail in November. Until then, he got most of his news through online aggregators like Google News. Newspapers were associated with ‘boring, old people stuff,’ and Kunz hadn’t realized that the Deseret News was still printing physical copies of its paper. He was surprised by how much he liked having a tangible paper in which stories were neatly packed. Kunz told his mother he wanted a Deseret News subscription for Christmas and that if she wouldn’t pay for it, he would buy it himself. Now, he starts and ends his days with the paper, reading a few stories at a time so that he can make the papers — which come twice a week — last.”

Anecdotal though it is, that story is encouraging. Does the future lie with young print enthusiasts like Kunz or with subscription scoffers like the UPenn subjects? Some of each, one suspects.

Cynthia Murrell, February 27, 2024


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