By Dan Cotter, publisher
Many years ago, while discussing the Troubles in Northern Ireland with a good friend, he said to me, “anyone who thinks they know the solution doesn’t really understand the problem.”
That quote crossed my mind this week as I contemplated the grave challenges we face in the newspaper industry – both throughout the country and right here in our community.
Just to review, newspapers in general, and our Vermont Standard, have troubles of their own. We have a revenue shortfall. The funding that traditionally supported local journalism has been drying up. Over the past twenty years in particular, big box stores, chains, and now online sellers such as Amazon have wiped out most of their competition, especially the smaller independent retailers and service providers who loyally supported local newspapers with their weekly ads.
And newspapers used to receive a substantial amount of classified advertising revenue too from help wanted, auto, and real estate/rentals ads, and private parties selling used merchandise. Today, those classified advertisers use a variety of online and digital marketing options instead of or sometimes in addition to a newspaper.
And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic set the national and local economy back in many ways, and it has had trouble rebounding due to staff shortages and supply chain issues. Newspapers rely on advertising dollars that just aren’t being spent in this economic environment.
Acting as though they don’t really understand the problem – which is a revenue problem – many newspapers throughout the country have carried out hardcore expense trimming and staff reductions in an attempt to balance the budget. For example, just in the past few weeks, the largest newspaper company in the country laid off 400 workers. At the Standard, we’ve done our share of trimming expenses as well.
But despite the belt-tightening, the numbers don’t add up. Without an infusion of revenue, losses pile up. There aren’t enough expenses or personnel to cut without crippling the organization. You simply cannot save your way to prosperity, much less fund new initiatives. Something tends to give.
The remaining skeletal staff at these papers — once strong and proudly serving their communities with news, information and commentary that helps their readers understand local issues and each other so that they can make good decisions and solve problems they face together — can no longer adequately cover the news.
In industry jargon, we call these “ghost papers.” They’re now just shadows of their former selves, barely worth taking the few minutes required to read them cover to cover. And that loss of quality local journalism leaves behind a void in the community and a breeding ground for misinformation and division.
It’s estimated that as many as 20% of the newspapers in the country are now ghost papers.
The problem we’re facing isn’t that we need reliable, local journalism any less. We need it more than ever. With all the forces at play in our country that tear at the fabric of our democracy, citizens surely need a publication to turn to that tries each week to foster better understanding in their community. With all the “crisis fatigue” we experience in the national news today, we no doubt benefit from a regular dose of what’s often uplifting news about our neighbors and community to help us maintain balance, perspective and hope.
There’s certainly no drop-off in consumer demand for the local journalism we provide. The Standard’s circulation and website visitation volumes remain steady.
But our true problem is that the funding mechanism that served us well for so many years has deteriorated, and so we need to support local journalism in a different way. Unfortunately, very few newspapers have found ways to solve their revenue problem. More than a fourth of the country’s newspapers have gone out of business. And too many of those that remain have severely diminished their paper with drastic expense cuts that gutted the paper of the very journalism it is supposed to be providing. Leaving behind, well, a ghost.
The Standard is trying to avoid that trap. We want to sustain the paper as well as the quality of the local journalism we provide. Improve it even. The Standard exists to serve its communities, and now we need the community’s assistance to help us keep it going.
You can help by continuing to read the Standard and patronizing our advertisers. If you’re also in a position to advertise, please do so. And right now, please consider making a donation to our 2022 Annual Appeal. If you’re able, please send us a check at PO Box 88, Woodstock, VT 05091 or go to our Vermont Standard THIS WEEK website at www.thevermontstandard.com to make a contribution with your credit card.
The Standard is not a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so your gift can’t be deducted from your taxes, but your gift will help ensure that the Standard will be around to serve our community for a long time.