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Opinion: State of the News

Walker Evans and Anne Evans Walker Evans and Anne Evans Opinion: State of the News
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Hostile takeover bids. Mergers. Consolidations. The race to the next ‘saving thing.’

This is the State of News.

For years, many cities across the country have seen their local newspapers being bought up and consolidated into larger and larger companies. Companies that are willing to make deep cuts to local jobs to achieve higher levels of profitability. Companies that answer to shareholders, not communities.

This has left many news organizations struggling to find their foothold in the digital future of the industry, although there are some bright spots. The New York Times released numbers in February that show it has grown revenue by 6.2 percent year over year, with their digital advertising generating 17 percent more money than their print advertising in 2018. It also boasts impressive levels of paid subscribers — 3.4 million for digital alone — for a total of 4.3 million paid subscribers.

Other outlets have not fared as well. Corporate consolidation has led many communities to see a reduction in service (turning a daily newspaper into a weekly) or a closure, or merger with another publication owned by the parent company.

Newspaperownership.com has tracked 56 closings, mergers and reductions from 2004-2016.

Get Ready to Suffer From “Subscription Fatigue”

The race to the paid subscriber model is not going to work for every publication, particularly local and regional news outlets. In a world that is quickly growing more and more subscription-centric, there will come a level of fatigue where customers are not willing to pay to access every type of media they want to consume. Already, we’re tasked with making choices about paying for Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Pandora, Spotify, and others for entertainment. Not to mention beauty, fashion and food companies adopting the subscription model to get a product delivered monthly to your door. Add in newspapers and magazine subscriptions and the subscriber base will continue to stretch thinner and thinner.

Add in Apple’s recent proposal of a news subscription service — which amounts to Apple hoarding the subscriber data, most of the subscription fee, as well as most of the advertising revenue — and we may be headed into a scary future. Thankfully, larger news companies are already pushing back on this one.

Subscriptions for newspapers will only work if you are providing unique, high-quality reporting and writing to a very large audience that goes beyond your city’s limits.

Don’t Blame The Internet

While the internet has played a large role in shifting news consumption from printed newspapers to digital devices, it has opened up a new world of news production and publishing that was previously unavailable to many people. Legacy newspapers served as the “gatekeepers” to the industry, as startup costs for printing presses were far beyond the reach of your average citizen. Today, people can write, share, read and access news in a multitude of ways that didn’t exist just 25 years ago.

If the internet served as a “disruptor” to the legacy newspaper printers, it’s largely due to their problematic approach to early adoption. From the beginning, many news outlets treated online news consumption as a niche product, publishing content for free and selling online advertising at a discounted rate — or even free — in order to bundle it into larger print advertising packages.

As internet audiences grew and outpaced print audiences, newspapers had found themselves dug into a hole of their own design. Adding online subscriptions to a previously free product meant that some users would balk at paying for something they had grown accustomed to not paying for, and some advertisers would similarly balk at paying increased advertising rates for something they had been getting for free or cheap.

At the same time, online services like Craigslist bottomed-out the lucrative classified ads section of newspapers and print weeklies. According to data at MinnPost.com, newspaper classified advertising revenue dropped by 77 percent from 2000 to 2012 — a collective loss of $15 billion per year for the newspaper industry.

The Trojan Horse of Social Media

Meanwhile, the rise of social media exacerbated all of these issues. Facebook, Twitter, and Google pushed newsrooms to make their content sharable within their platforms so that they could build an audience to engage with. Newsrooms (along with most all businesses and organizations) happily took the bait, as the platforms were free to use, audiences were rapidly growing, and the idea of seeing “likes” and “retweets” and “comments” provided a digital metric that felt like a currency, even if it couldn’t be translated into literal dollars. Engagement = good.

As time went on, those social media companies slowly deployed their own advertising platforms, undercutting the content creators while simultaneously altering algorithms to reduce audience reach unless news publications were willing to pay to “boost” posts to reach their original viewers. The news gatekeepers of yesteryear had slowly become hostage to the new gatekeepers of information: Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and the others.

Related Reading from TheAtlantic.com: The Mark Zuckerberg Manifesto Is a Blueprint for Destroying Journalism

The newsroom emphasis on social media and search engines have had larger impacts as well. Should journalists write a compelling news story for their audiences to learn information about their own community? Or should they write content-packed listicles with keywords and search terms in order for a search engine to find it and hope for maximum social sharing? Recent research from Duke indicates that many newsrooms are taking the latter approach, with only half of news stories shared by publications on social media falling into the categories of “critical information” and only 17 percent of news stories provided to the community being truly local.

Fake News is Mostly a Fake Problem

Simply put, “fake news” is being confused with “news I don’t personally like,” primarily due to the daily misuse of the term by the current President of the United States.

True “fake news” is produced by hackers, trolls and others with ill-intent to confuse and bewilder social media news skimmers that do not take the time to vet the authenticity of a story before pressing the “share” button. Facebook is attempting to combat fake news with Fact-Checking Partnerships, however, Snopes.com opted not to renew as of February 2019.

A recent study by Princeton and New York University found that the practice of sharing fake news was “rare” in general, and was a practice largely attributed to social media users over the age of 65.

Misusing the term “fake news” to describe legitimate news that you disagree with does nothing but deepen partisan divides and discredit hardworking journalists.

A Well-Informed Community is a Better Community

At Columbus Underground, we work hard every day, as we have for the past 18 years, to produce news and stories about our community that we are proud of. News and stories that talk about what matters in our community, makes our community better, and is truthful and honest. Our shareholders are the members of our community. We rely on our readers, event attendees, advertisers and sponsors for your support, and are grateful to have it in a city like Columbus.

Every day that you read Columbus Underground, you support independently-owned journalism, and help to make your community the place you want to live. Thank you.

Anne Evans & Walker Evans
Co-Founders & Co-Owners

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