With two newspapers closing each week in the US, what stops the collapse?

Media groups find success in driving audiences to owned properties

New research in the US has found that more than two local newspapers are closing each week, and more than half of US counties have one or no news outlets. By the end of 2024, the US will have lost almost a third of its newspapers since 2005. The losses are disproportionately affect rural and less affluent areas. And it’s so grim to read 36 outlets owned by Gannett and Lee that list no local reporters, which the report calls “ghost newspapers”.

But there are bright spots. The report has 17 profiles of local news outlets - local newspapers like the Boston Globe and Seattle Times plus new outlets like Block Club Chicago. Another interesting and positive development is local public media groups that have bought newspapers.

The response that they call for is multi-faceted involving government at all levels als US society - local, state and national. They also highlighted the recently launched Press Forward half a billion-dollar philanthropic effort. It is not a definitive answer that most advocates of local journalism want. But I am seeing models that do work: newsletters as a minimum viable product for a local news startup with a business model based on subscribers. But other models will be required to cover rural and low-income areas. It will most likely have to be publicly funded. But there will have to be many models.

However, I also believe that the first step is to renew belief and trust in journalism as an important pillar of democratic societies. Maybe we need to heal democracy before we rebuild journalism.

A great talk by Esther Kezia-Thorpe, one of my favourite people covering media. It’s a good rousing speech so after the depressing news of the layoffs and closures, this is a good tonic. Just a taste of what she has to say.

Have we learned from our mistakes of the past decades? The slowness to adapt to digital, the assumption that the models would be similar, that ad money would flow thick and fast with access to near-unlimited audiences? 

Or are we ready to adapt to the rapid changes these technologies will bring, with business models that incentivise loyalty over traffic numbers, community over scale, quality over quantity?

Esther Kezia-Thorpe, Media Voices

About 35% of its revenue comes from local direct advertising, and that has insulated it from some of the challenges facing national titles and other groups, Newsquest’s CEO says. I agree with him that just as it is important to have local journalists covering local stories it is also important to have local ad sales staff building relationships with local businesses. It' is key to running a successful local news business.

In the last edition, we highlighted how the New York Times was focused on getting people to its own properties, and that focus is spreading to other publishers. It is another aspect of building direct relationships with audiences. It has become so critical with the decline in referral traffic.

A prevalent theme among the publishers’ latest earnings calls was that getting audiences to their owned and operated platforms — be it dotcoms, apps or newsletters — will be increasingly important as referral traffic from social media and search engines continues to decline.

Kayleigh Barber, Digiday

The results also show the fruits of New York Times subscription strategy, including the premium of its all-access bundle. New York Times continues to increase its subscriber base.

As I have said before, I worked as a regional executive editor and news director for Gannett managing some of their titles in Wisconsin so I keep an eye on them. Gannett eked out a little bit of subs growth, but it has been mostly flat for the last four quarters. One bright spot was that they were able to increase ARPU.

The title refers to Gannett’s Taylor Swift reporter, but it is actually asking why there isn’t more reporting in a virtual manifestation of local communities in the US: neighbourhood network Nextdoor and local Facebook groups. I have seen this work well firsthand during my work with Reach in the UK and also in my previous role in regional public media in the US. However, it should be a source of story ideas not just something to aggregate.

But is that money coming ever coming back to publishers is the question? Google and Facebook say that they have already paid by directing traffic to news sites.