Jennifer Schubert-Akin Op-ed on State of Local Journalism

With the Denver Post, Salt Lake Tribune, and numerous other longstanding newspapers under tremendous competitive pressure, Colorado Journalism Week is highlighting the importance of local journalism in today’s media environment. Steamboat Institute chairman and CEO Jennifer Schubert-Akin adds her thoughts on the the future of local journalism in an op-ed in The Steamboat Pilot. Read it here or pasted below.

Local newspapers are vital part of communities; they can have a resurgence

Local newspapers are vital part of communities; they can have a resurgence

Colorado is booming, but its flagship paper is being hollowed out.

Last week, the Denver Post laid off two dozen journalists, just the latest round of cuts demanded by its New York City-based owner. Its headcount has fallen from 250 to around 60 in the span of several years. At the same time, the city and state populations are growing rapidly, both in sheer numbers and in the educated demographic most likely to subscribe. Newspapers across the state are facing similar pressures.

This week is Colorado Journalism Week, which highlights the contributions local newspapers make to our communities and the important role they play in defending them. It’s a moment to reflect on their significance and explore how they can be saved.

The digital revolution has hit local newspapers with a punch combination. Right jab: Free online news has reduced paying subscribers. Left cross: Online advertising isn’t nearly as lucrative as print ads. And right uppercut: The bulk of online ad spending goes to Facebook and Google, which feature local news content but don’t pay for it.

As a result, newspapers have been knocked to the mat. According to Pew Research, national daily newspaper circulation has fallen by nearly half since the beginning of the century. Ad revenues have fallen by two-thirds. Nearly half of Americans now get their news from Facebook. The number of newsroom employees has fallen by over one-third, and some newspapers, including Colorado outlets like the Rocky Mountain News, have closed entirely.

This has major implications for this country, whose founding is deeply intertwined with newspapers. The debate over whether to even form a country — now known as the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers — played out in local newspapers nearly 250 years ago. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world to enshrine a free press in its constitution.

Local newspapers are a vital tool in defending freedom. They act as an unmatched check on local power and its accompanying abuses and corruption. They also tell the local human interest stories that reflect and project our shared community spirit, reinvigorating it at a time when this is needed most.

Local newspapers are even more important in today’s era of “fake news,” where we can’t be sure that a blog isn’t set up by a foreign operative or a corporate PR firm in order to influence public opinion. Readers can be sure that local newspapers are not the marionettes of some special interest puppet-master.

This isn’t to say that local newspapers don’t share some blame for their dire straits. Many have been too slow to respond to the digital revolution, keeping reporters on beats also covered by hundreds of other outlets. Local newspapers probably don’t need a reporter dedicated to covering the latest palace intrigue at the White House.

Then there’s their unapologetic liberal bias that has turned off roughly half of potential readers. And I’m not only talking about the opinion sections, where 243 daily newspapers endorsed Hillary Clinton for president compared to only 20 for Donald Trump. Their implicit and explicit bias in favor of more regulation, taxes, and government spending is also evident in their ostensibly objective news sections.

To take one of countless examples: I didn’t read one story when Colorado was considering a ballot measure in 2016 to raise the state’s minimum wage by 44 percent that prominently featured an entry-level employee who would lose her job, or a mom-and-pop store that would be put out of business as a result. This bias must end if local newspapers want to expand their readership.

If local newspapers focus on their comparative advantage, local news, presented in a bias-free way, I predict they will have a resurgence.

There will always be a market for local news. Because there will always be a need for it.

Jennifer Schubert-Akin is chairman and CEO of The Steamboat Institute. 

April 24, 2018