Last week, I was having lunch in a local restaurant and couldn't help but overhear the animated conversation at a table next to me. When I heard them mention the local newspaper, my ears perked up even more.
Until I retired a couple of years ago, I was vice president of the company that operated this newspaper, so you can see why I was so interested.
The complaint centered on the size of the previous day's newspaper and what was perceived to be less news content, and how the newspaper ought to realize that in these times, readers need more news coverage, not less. As the speaker continued to bemoan the situation and his luncheon companion agreed, I became a bit irritated. I was tempted to speak up, but decided to save my comments for this column.
First off, newspapers are not a government agency supported by tax dollars. Collecting, editing and disseminating news is very labor intensive and costs money ... a lot of it. The economic downturn has hit newspapers just as hard as it has other businesses, maybe even worse. That's right, I said business because most folks don't realize that newspapers are a business. They need to have revenues that exceed their expenses, just like any other business in order to survive.
These are very tough times for newspapers. As retailers cut their expenses, one of the first to go is advertising, the lifeblood of a newspaper. Newspapers were already rocked by losses in classified advertising to free local web sites and bulletin boards. Then the cost of gasoline went up and bumped their delivery expenses out of sight. On top of that, the major newsprint suppliers increased the cost of paper more than 40 percent in the course of just a year! It became almost the perfect storm for publishers.
To put a finer point on it, newspapers across the country are cutting back on publishing days, going from seven to six; six to five and five to three days a week. Fewer ads means fewer pages overall.
Last week, Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company, announced it is taking a five billion dollar write down in the value of the company, in view of declining revenues and profits.
On Jan. 15, the blogger at Creative Loafing mentioned that the new publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told employees the AJC is losing about a million dollars a week!
Regular industry reports cite staff cuts at newspapers across the nation, ranging from three to twelve percent as they struggle to survive. Right in this state, the owner of the Athens and Augusta dailies is having difficulty handling debt-service payments.
None of us knows where the bottom of this current collapse will be. I think many businesses will not survive and that will probably include some newspapers.
That will be a tragedy because who will be the watchdog then? Who will question decisions made by governments at the state and local level? Who will shine some light into dark corners to make certain that meetings are not made in secret concerning your tax dollars? Who will keep tabs on other institutions that may abuse the power they possess?
So, what can you do about it?
Start by supporting your local newspaper. Patronize the newspaper advertisers, tell them where you saw their ads and encourage them to do more. Call in news tips to the editors, so they can follow up where needed. They still will need to dig, but you can move the first shovelful.
Spend a few bucks a month on a home delivered subscription. Newspaper web sites are okay (they don't make much money for the papers), but the complete package comes in printed format.
Most of all, be supportive. The paper you hold in your hand may be smaller than it was a year ago, but it still is better sourced, reported and edited than what some blogger may put on line who has no solid journalism background or training.
Rick Rae is the retired vice president of Triple Crown Media and former publisher of both the Gwinnett (Ga.) Daily Post and the Rockdale (Ga.) Citizen.