Seares: Would readers pay for higher cost of community newspapers?

Medias Public

“Perception that print is in serious decline is both false and self-inflicted—that is, if media types would just stop saying print is dying, it wouldn’t be... Good news is that many readers are still paying (a lot) for print.”-Iris Chyi, in “Journalism Studies,” quoted in NiemanLab

A RECENT study of 25 large U.S. newspapers tends to support the decision of publishers to raise the price of their product when advertising revenue plunged during the 2008 recession. Many of the American papers now cost twice as much as they did 10 years ago and that was “a smart move,” according to a Jan. 28, 2019 report by Joshua Benton in “Nieman Lab,” a media news site.

The finding props up the practical theory that the way to survive the crisis in print media is to make readers pay more for their paper. Use, as they put it, the paper’s “pricing power.”

The Washington Post costs 3.5 times higher now than it did seven years ago. The Los Angeles Times yearly subscription has risen from $104 to $624.

To American experts looking at the problem of the “death in print” phenomenon, the shift in the burden of paying for newspapers was bound to happen. They bicker over the cause: decline in print circulation or collapse in print advertising. The study notes though that it was more a case of “advertisers finding new alternatives” than “readers finding new alternatives.” The ads started diminishing before the audiences did, the study points out.

And they justify the increase in cost to be borne by readers: for so long, advertisers had been paying more than readers for the paper’s upkeep. Ad revenues constituted 80 percent of a paper’s income while subscription and street sales of copies earned only 20 percent of it. That pricing scheme, of course, assumed that the advertiser made money from, and must pay more for, the exposure of their products to the paper’s audience.

Killing core product

In Philippine newspapers, the red flag was up as early as 2005, when a few papers in the U.S., led by the Chicago Tribune, started leaving the print platform for the digital world. In Cebu, at least one newspaper started weekly planning on a transition to an “integrated” newsroom. It was assumed there would be a “cultural lag” of a decade or more before effects of the global crisis would be felt in the Philippines.

Well, it is here now and the scramble for solutions, the experts fear, might lead to a “suicide spiral.” And that may be set off by taking moves that “kill the core product,” such as removing the number of journalists and slashing allotted space or time of publication or broadcast required for the paper to keep its quality. While lay-offs and other cost-cutting measures reduce expenses, they can also tamper with the product.

Unwanted results

The slicing off may not shed fat but prime meat, thus possibly leading to these unwanted results:

• Relegating quality to the back room and putting premium on speed (not minding the errors as energetically as it used to);

• Focusing on the interesting and sensational (missing the narrative and significance of the story) and junking advocacies that tie the paper to its community and nation;

• Failure to distinguish content in print from content online, thus duplicating what are offered, glossing over facts and meaning, and skipping its job to help the audience to what they need and to enlighten, explain and engage.

Spending more

Some newspaper readers may resent the increase in price. It happened in the U.S. when Washington Post readers in 2001 protested over a 10-cent hike from 25 cents.

Apparently, many Americans who are loyal to their paper have taken things in stride and rallied to the call that they support local journalism. One wonders if that will happen in our own community where the local paper is afflicted with the same crisis that plagues print media globally.

From lessons abroad and the local experience, one can say it depends largely on the reader’s need for and trust in his paper, which in turn come from the paper’s quality of journalism. What they call pricing power. If, however, that pricing power was never there or is sapped by erosion of quality caused by the economic turbulence, the paper cannot expect loyalty that requires the reader to spend more.

What to prepare for

It will help if managers know how much readership they will lose if the paper raises the price. U.S. newspapers that hired polling experts had a fairly good idea what to prepare for.

A lot too will depend on what the paper can offer which they cannot find in the hodge-podge, often confusing world of internet news and information. The reader cannot just be told that the paper is better; that has to be shown. The old basic standard of “Show, don’t tell” apparently works.


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