Guest Editorial - Newspaper Cutbacks Affects Local News Coverage

By John Hull | 

Elk Grove’s long-standing local newspaper, the Citizen, announced recently the Wednesday edition of their printed broadsheet would be eliminated effective the end of May. The 110-year- old publication will return to a single weekly newspaper, its Friday edition.

The Citizen cited a precipitous drop in local advertising during this COVID-19 pandemic for dropping its twice-weekly publication. But, the Herburger family newspaper isn’t the only one suffering financially. The California Newspaper Publishers Association, on its website, wrote, “Newspapers are essential businesses, informing the public about coronavirus and other news, but the COVID-19 pandemic has left the newspaper industry, already financially stretched, struggling for survival. The vital news coverage provided by our state and local news outlets is at risk due to an economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a significant decline of advertising in newspapers, a revenue stream that many publishers rely on heavily to operate. News publishers simply cannot survive declines of as much as 70 percent of this important revenue source.”

What has kept the Citizen, and many other local newspapers, afloat has been its unique content – covering the local governmental institutions, schools and business activities which metropolitan publication such as the Sacramento Bee typically ignores. However, when the local businesses no longer advertise  - whether it is the economy at the time or bad journalism – there is just no way the Citizen or any other newspaper can stay afloat.

The brand of journalism originating from the Citizen can be debated back and forth, but when it comes to paying bills there is just so far any newspaper can go before it must make cutbacks or quit. Subscriptions used to be one of the strongest revenue sources of that industry, but free information via the Internet has really cut that revenue stream back. It has tumbled in the past 15 years, in particularly. reports that daily paid subscriptions for all U.S. newspapers totaled a little more than 50.74 million papers in 2003. In 2018 those daily numbers had sunk to 28.55 million.

Classified ads, the two or three-line text ads found generally in the back section of the paper, used to pay most of the newspapers’ expenses by itself until Craigslist, the free web-based sale site, came along to steal virtually all of those dollars.

Thus, a newspaper has to rely almost entirely on its display advertising monies which for a publication like the Citizen comes from local retailers. Thus, when the local economy takes a hit, so does the local “rag.” But, the downturn of advertising in the newspaper has been happening for quite some time.

Of all the advertising monies spent in the U.S. in 2007, 28.1% was placed in newspapers. Advertising Age magazine predicts that by 2021 just 4.8% of all ad monies will be spent in newsprint. Contrast that with advertising on the internet which in that same time span has zoomed from 8.3% of all U.S. ad dollars to a whopping 53.3% by next year. That’s because so many of us get our information from our small screens.

This is where good journalism must keep news entities afloat. It’s more than the “who, what, where, when” that a journalist records when doing their job. They must in all stories ask, “Why?” and “How?” If rewriting news releases is all that is being done then you are not doing journalism, you are engaged in public relations. Sure, asking the hard question, the “why” and “how”, will make news makers squirm, but they should particularly those that are elected.

Our nation’s founding fathers recognized the importance of a free press knowing that it would call government and all public entities into accountability. That’s what us journalists call the “watchdog” role of the media. Those newsrooms willing to write what is called the “enterprise” stories will succeed for there will be readers wanting more than what is on the surface.

And, the use of websites and social media is now essential to the success of any news entity – television station, radio station or newspaper. The legacy media now must point their entire business model towards the small screen that we all carry, leaving their traditional medium – the radio and TV airwaves and printed page – as now a secondary method of communication to the masses.

If any news or sports entity is to have a future, they must communicate over the personal devices. And, with more than just text. Video and audio clips along with photographs offer the reader (and eventually, the online subscriber) something more than just something to read.

Then, the advertiser will follow because he knows that’s where prospective buyers will be. 

John Hull is an Adjunct Professor of Journalism and Radio/TV/ Film Production at Cosumnes River College. A longtime resident of Elk Grove, Hull is a former sports Editor at the Elk Grove Citizen newspaper, and former news anchor and reporter at KFBK/KSTE Radio.

Copyright by John Hull © 2020. All right reserved.


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Capt. Benjamin Willard said...

Thank you, Mr. Hull, for your thoughtful editorial. As a former associate of the Herburger family and the Elk Grove Citizen, you undoubtedly offer relevant insights.

While I certainly hope the Citizen and other similarly situated local publications survive, it will not be easy and not without change. As a longtime reader, the Citizen, as Mr. Hull correctly stated, does not appear to engage in any hard-hitting enterprise reporting on government activity.

For as many years as I have been reading and subscribing, I cannot recall a published story based on a public information request, which even many Elk Grove residents access to monitor their government and how taxpayers money is utilized. If the Citizen is to survive, they again need to become relevant, and they can start by baring their teeth and not be a house organ for the City of Elk Grove

Eye on Elk Grove said...

The Elk Grove Citizen stopped doing investigative reporting after Jeff Forward left. . .and I use that term lightly. Jeff was a gifted editor, very, very tough, not afraid to the poke the city of Elk Grove's bear; but he was fair.

And as the Citizen was warned very often by Elk Grove City Council members (and this statement came from council members' themselves), they needed the city of Elk Grove's revenue from the public notices. Message: Wink, wink, nod, nod on any articles on accountability.

So it appears the Citizen's powers learned the hard way not to bite the hand that feeds you.

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