Originally published April, 2021. Updated today as we approach the 185th anniversary of The Baltimore Sun. Photo above is poster from 1987 anniversary celebration.
The ultimate problem for American newspapers — besides the level of profits demanded by corporate ownership — is that not enough people feel a need to read a newspaper. Even digital versions of newspapers do not appear to be making headway fast enough. In the midst of the Trump travesty, the wishful thinking was that Americans would pay more attention to their democracy, concerned about whether it would survive Trump’s malign presidency. And presumably that meant more Americans would be subscribing to newspapers. In fact, that did not happen. According to Pew Research, U.S. newspaper circulation fell in 2018 to its lowest level since 1940. Total daily newspaper circulation (print and digital) was an estimated 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday in 2018. (The population of the United States is more than 10 times that.)
Circulation is an indication of readership so it follows that fewer people are reading newspapers. (Also in 2018, a survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the share of Americans who read for pleasure on any given day had fallen by more than 30 percent over the previous 15 years.)
If you are among the newspaper-informed, then you are probably mildly shocked by this. Certainly everyone reads the Times, right? If not the Times, then the Post, right? And some of us still have room for the local papers, including The Baltimore Sun, and maybe even a magazine or two.
But, as I see it, most Americans are lazier — or more indifferent or easily distracted — than they have ever been when it comes to reading credible, mainstream news reported by professional journalists in the employ of publishers.
And this is key: If we don’t have more readers, advertisers don’t see the need to use newspapers to reach their markets, and we have less revenue to support journalism.
Newspaper readership has been cyclical throughout U.S. history and often because of history. But this time I’m worried that, unless we figure out an Information Age formula, all but a few newspapers will survive. (There were more layoffs of journalists in 2020, and 60 newsrooms closed entirely, including that of the Capitol in Annapolis and the Carroll County Times among five closed by Tribune.)
I get a lot of feedback from readers, and I love it and I love them, though the feedback is sometimes hateful and filled with wishes that The Baltimore Sun would fold. But, for every reader of my column there are many more who never see it and never experience the Sun. I hear conservatives complain that we don’t publish conservative commentary, and it’s a completely false charge. On Saturday, during a rally held by my union, the News Guild, to call for the Sun’s return to local ownership, I heard comments from people who, it was reasonable to conclude, either never read the Sun or read it with such a jaundiced eye I had to wonder why they attended the rally.
We get accused of all kinds of things we do not do (or no longer do) in our coverage of the community, and we get little credit for the things we do do, day in and day out, without fail, though our staff of journalists has been greatly diminished under Tribune ownership.
If I sound a little testy when it comes to criticism of the Sun, congratulations on your perceptiveness. My newsroom colleagues work their asses off, and we won a Pulitzer Prize last year for local reporting because of that. And yet, I hear constant complaints about what we don’t do and little praise for what we do do.
I think, under the circumstances, we do a very good job of covering the community. We still generate most of the major stories in our region, and I don’t care if that sounds self-serving. It’s true and has been so for a long time.
Those of us who work for newspapers don’t like to talk about this because it sounds defeatist, or like sour grapes, or whining that the world has changed and left us behind. But it’s true: Too few people in the Baltimore area read the Sun — in part because of some of our failings (not enough reporters, not enough marketing of our brand) — but mostly because, I fear, people just don’t take the time to read daily news. It’s happening all over the country.
And so I often encounter people who have not a clue what’s going on locally but for what they might hear on talk radio or catch on Facebook. And when we get to social media, Facebook and Twitter primarily, then it’s a reductionist form of news — very brief, heavily reliant on summary — that may be tainted with bias, or completely fabricated. When we are talking about news from the iron core of journalism — the daily newspapers and wire services — there remains just a small percentage of society informed that way.
The other day, a professor at the University of Maryland asked: How do we get more people to be interested in climate change and to understand it? My answer: Most of America will only see climate change as a major problem by experience — when they witness for themselves the extreme weather, fires and coastal flooding related to climate change — and not from reading newspapers. They don’t read newspapers. (If they did, they’d be profoundly scared at what’s happening to the Earth and only vote for climate-focused candidates.) They watch television news, and then only sparingly. Trump was a result of an under-informed and ill-informed electorate that does not read daily newspapers. A major part of the political division in the U.S. is an information division.
What to do? How to change this?
One possibility is to stop striving for a larger circulation and accept that newspapers should serve an educated elite that cares about politics, social issues and matters of public interest. We could just tell those who want credible, professional newspapers they must pay more for the content we produce. While that might sound like a realistic approach, it doesn’t strike me as a recipe for closing political/cultural divisions or for financial success.
If we truly want “light for all,” here and everywhere, then I have a few suggestions:
- Marketing our brand and our value. We need to spend more on advertising the newspaper to prospective readers.
- Publish a weekly kids’ edition of the Sun and make digital subscriptions free to all children in the public schools.
- Push reading and supporting a daily newspaper as a fundamental of good citizenship. Join with civic groups that promote voter registration and voting to make clear that being an informed citizen is essential to being a fully engaged one.
- Schedule and send staff reporters and photographers to attend community meetings to talk up the need to support a newspaper and to hear what citizens want to see in our coverage. If each Guild member, for instance, took three community meetings per year, we might be able to talk to (and hear from) every constituency in our region and gain readership.
- Go back to cheaper advertising rates for small, local businesses: restaurants, bakeries, retailers and service companies. Make advertising intensely local and more accessible.
- Publish more specialized supplements and magazines supported by the advertising I just suggested.
- Make subscribers, present and future, feel as though they are supporting journalism and hit that theme hard. There’s “member supported” NPR, right? There can be the “subscriber supported” Baltimore Sun and other newspapers.
- Force news aggregators, Facebook and Google, to pay for newspaper-produced content.
Most of these ideas probably don’t sound very original, so I guess I’m talking about getting back to basics: selling ourselves, marketing our brands, pushing the reset with a new generation of prospective readers, getting ever closer to the communities we cover so they understand our value before it’s too late.