Last week, Publisher Teresa Parker wrote about the financial challenge of launching and sustaining a high-quality newspaper without sufficient start-up capital, and then finding ourselves smack in the middle of an economic meltdown precipitated by a plague.
That column generated many responses from readers, almost all heartfelt and bracing — including several offers of additional funding. Not yet enough to relieve all our worries, but enough to keep us trying for the rest.
It also produced lots of advice and questions, including one we hear often: Why not just go completely digital? Wouldn’t that cut costs drastically, with no need to print and mail the Independent?
Well, no, actually. Printing and delivering the paper to the post office and to newsstands is not that expensive. It represents only about 10 percent of our costs. And there are low postage rates for newspapers mailed in-county, where most of our subscribers live. (Our summer fellow Cana Tagawa explained this in her July 2 article about the role of the Postal Service in preserving democracy).
What’s expensive is researching, writing, photographing, drawing, and editing the news and features that make the Independent worth reading. The biggest chunk of money goes to paying people; going all-digital wouldn’t save anything there.
It might also hurt us in the subscription department. Eighty-seven percent of our subscribers get the print edition; just 13 percent, almost all of them out of state, get the digital only. Would all of those readers who like paper switch to online? Maybe.
What is certain is that our advertising income would tank. Why? Because there is virtually no money in selling digital advertising — not for us, and not for any other newspaper in America.
Professor Iris Chyi at the University of Texas School of Journalism has been studying newspaper economics for 20 years. “There is no digital revenue prospect that could support a real news organization,” she says. Even the New York Times, with its massively successful online presence, still generates most of its revenue from print.
The reasons for this aren’t hard to see. A small local paper like ours can’t compete online with Google and Facebook. And online ads are often intrusive and obnoxious; print ads almost never are. Print ads don’t interrupt your experience of reading the way digital ads do. Print ads are friendly.
But isn’t digital the future of everything? No, says Professor Chyi. Her research shows that readers — including younger people — increasingly prefer reading print over digital text.
Finding the right strategy for restoring community journalism remains a challenge. But one thing we won’t be doing is stopping the presses.