From Peter Wagner, Creative House Print Media Consultants
I’m amazed at how the traditional, over-the-air, television networks consistently report that “newspapers are dead.” Their anchors report that story time and again, but never report their own losses in viewership.
The most recent example took place on the October 6, 2019, broadcast of CBS News Sunday Morning hosted by Jane Pauley.
I usually enjoy the Sunday morning’s excellent reporting and off-the-wall feature stories. But I resent the network’s obsession with condemning the future of the printed newspaper.
The specific comment on October 6 was part of a piece about a new HBO production honoring the importance of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in glory days of New York journalism. They were “deadline artists,” the cross-network promotion story stated, “in a time when newspapers were still king.”
But the negative comments didn’t end there. In an attempt to hammer their point, the segment was introduced by Jane Pauley saying the “Newseum in Washington, DC, would be closing later this year as so many newspapers had over the last decade.”
“Over 1,800 newspapers have recently closed, merged or reduced the number of days they’re printed,” Pauley said.
She didn’t add that Gannett Company, the national newspaper publishing chain which includes USA Today, has been known for providing much of the Newseum’s funding, is entering a merger with Gatehouse Media. Gatehouse, which is reportedly assuming total management and the Gannett name, is known for running a much tighter financial operation.
But even more importantly, what Pauley didn’t report, and the network never reports, is that network and cable viewership is also greatly reduced. Especially over-the-air network numbers.
An associate recently told me about a comment made by a relative who manages a network TV station in a major metro market.
“The total number of households watching the five network, over-the-air stations in his city,” the station manager shared, “did not even total the equal time viewership any one of the stations had ten years ago.”
More importantly, TV Guide, which should be a positive spokesperson boosting the television industry, reported in its October 10 issue, that 2019’s fall premiere week attracted a smaller audience than last year, as it has year after year for the last five years.
In 2015 the new season introduction week attracted 33.9 million viewers across America. In 2016 that number dropped to 29.9 million and in 2017 to 27.1 million.
This fall, only 22 million viewers bothered to turn on their television sets to catch the new season of over-the-air network programing. That’s 13 million viewers, or over one-third less viewers, than five years ago.
The networks are suffering a huge decline in their viewership and yet they continue to point a finger at print as being the only victim of one generation’s dependency on social media.
There is a difference in television and print and a major reason so many community newspapers are continuing to do so well.
That reason is easily summed up in the word local! Locally owned and published community newspapers still have a solid connection with all that is local.
Television stations are forced by economics to plant themselves in major markets. Their broadcast news departments have to cover huge geographic areas, sometimes crossing state lines, in their attempt to be all things to all viewers. That hit-and-miss reporting fails to create the loyalty and following desired and needed by small community and even many regional businesses.
Local papers, in contrast, are able to concentrate their coverage of their hometown and nearby rural area. They are both capable and committed to reporting the latest information about the town’s school district, from the city manager’s office and county courthouse, regarding the downtown business district and the local churches.
They are stories alive with personality. That includes details from the weekend’s football games, the most recent meeting of the local Kiwanis club, a report of some honor given a local citizen and the upcoming events at the senior center.
Time and again I have watched the Main Streets of small towns without a newspaper disappear. Community newspapers, produced by families invested in the town’s future, are that community’s guarantee they will continue to exist and prosper.
Large town television stations have enough problems without using their time and energy taking potshots at newspapers. According to recent national reports younger Americans are disconnecting from cable and even their rooftop antenna at an alarming pace. Instead they are circumventing traditional broadcast distribution and turning to the many streaming services now being offered. Streaming services with no local news or consensus building local information.
Newspapers have a great future and an important story to tell about their permanence and readership. But to make sure the community knows and understands the facts, the entire staff from publisher to news staff to sales team need to get out on the street and tell it.