One of the goals we set for ourselves when we launched the Independent was to keep track of and regularly report on the state of local newspapers. We had talked to a lot of people in this business in our research, and they told us that it wouldn’t be easy (boy, were they right), and we wouldn’t get rich (correct), but we had a real shot at creating a self-sustaining and rewarding small enterprise.
We set up the Local Journalism Project as a separate nonprofit so that it could seek donations to support educational projects like internships and fellowships for young journalists, and research on how newspapers can contribute to their communities through public events like open newsrooms. Two cohorts of Independent summer fellows have now shown what a good idea that was.
Our four 2021 summer fellows gave us the newsroom strength to produce stories that we would not otherwise have been able to do. One of them, Sophie Hills, had done a summer internship last year at the Christian Science Monitor, and she used that experience, in part, to research her report on the outlook for local newspapers on page A7 this week.
The national news, Sophie writes, has been full of stories about the demise of the news business — the decline in advertising, the loss of newsroom jobs, the closing of long-established papers. All of that is true. But as is often the case with endlessly repeated stories (even in the national press, as in the case of the Provincetown Covid Cluster), important facts are overlooked. The story is told so many times that people don’t even think to question it. They just know that it’s true.
What’s missing from the death of newspapers story are the thousands of small local papers that are still independently owned and very much alive. Joey Young, a newspaper publisher in Newton, Kan., explained that public attention focuses “on names that America recognizes,” like the Denver Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune, all bought by predatory corporate owners like Alden Global Capital and facing devastating cuts to produce big profits for investors. Hardly anyone has ever heard of Harvey County Now, one of Young’s small independent group of Kansas papers, which is doing very well indeed.
Another part of Sophie’s story that almost never gets reported is that the success of small papers is often all about carrying print advertising. In the old days, newspapers expected to produce 80 percent of their revenue that way. The Falmouth Enterprise, says publisher and editor Bill Hough, gets 70 percent of its revenue from print ads. Not exactly a disastrous economic collapse.
Here on the Outer Cape, we are encouraged by local businesses’ support of the Independent. Sometimes, what you think you are sure is true is wrong. Community support, both in the form of subscriptions and print advertising, is one of the reasons why independent local newspapers are not going away but starting to come back.