A struggling newspaper’s stunt drew national attention to the local journalism crisis last week.
It turns out, the stunt will also keep the lights on and the newsroom rolling awhile longer at The Northeast News, an 89-year-old weekly serving a historic quarter of Kansas City.
The March 24 edition featured a blank front page, with nothing below the nameplate, giving readers “a peek into the potential future” of struggling newspapers, Managing Editor Abby Hoover explained in a column.
As I wrote in our weekly Save the Free Press initiative’s newsletter, this desperate effort to survive highlights the plight of America’s system of local, independently owned newspapers.
It’s unclear, though, whether Missouri’s representatives in Congress will help.
Publisher Michael Bushnell provided a first-person account in a feisty editorial. I followed up with an interview last week.
“The sad fact of the matter is this: Locally owned community news outlets across the country are in real trouble, many in danger of closing after a lifetime of community news reporting,” he wrote.
For The Northeast News, the near final straws were the pandemic slowdown in advertising and the recent loss of three key accounts. One was a grocer that shifted ads to “the New York City hedge-fund owned Kansas City Star” that Bushnell said reports on little in Northeast Kansas other than killings.
A nearby paper, the Jackson County Advocate, closed last month after 55 years, Bushnell continued:
“In short, the organization that took on the task and shouldered the burden of reporting on and advocating for their community is gone. Period.”
Five daily newspapers and 31 weeklies in Missouri closed between 2004 and 2019, a 14% decline, according to the U.S. News Deserts research project at the University of North Carolina.
Newspaper circulation fell 25% over that period, to 760,000, in a state with 4.7 million adults.
That was before the pandemic, which nationally prompted more closures, layoffs and furloughs. Newsroom employment decreased by half over the previous two decades.
To survive, local papers must evolve and adopt new business models, including digital advertising strategies. But that sector is dominated by tech giants that are, according to federal investigators, competing unfairly.
Emergency relief is needed to preserve remaining jobs and sustain news organizations as they pursue new models and stability.
Philanthropists and generous readers are helping in some places. But federal relief is necessary for a national crisis. Besides, the need for journalism may be greatest in places without wealth and benefactors.
This is a public good. As newspapers die or are acquired by chains investing little in reporting, voters lose their primary source of news necessary to self govern.
Northeast Kansas City apparently heard the message. Bushnell said donations and offers from local businesses to help poured in after the blank cover was published.
But first staff had to answer calls from people wondering what happened and whether there was a mistake.
“You deliver a paper like that and your phone starts ringing — ‘hey they messed up your front page, there’s supposed to be words on it,’” he said. “Our circulation people were a little freaked out because we didn’t clue them in on what was going on.”
The page design’s backstory? “We were spit-balling in a staff meeting and that was the upshot,” he said.
The Northeast News is ad-supported and free, delivered by carriers in five ZIP codes. It prints 9,000 copies and has a web site, with no paywall, getting 30,000 views per month.
That had supported a staff of five. But Bushnell is considering different approaches, such as voluntary subscriptions like public television, rewarding those pledging $5 or $10 per month with premiums. He’s also thinking about better monetizing the paper online.
A $12,000 PPP loan helped but a banker told him he didn’t qualify for a second one. After learning of the paper’s struggles, another banker called and helped secure preliminary approval.
A potential lifesaver would be the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (H.R. 7640), which would provide tax credits to outlets employing reporters and to newspaper subscribers. It was introduced last year by U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, and should be reintroduced soon.
The bill had bipartisan support with 78 co-sponsors. But nobody in Missouri’s delegation sponsored it or another bipartisan journalism bill, H.R. 2054, to help news organizations more fairly negotiate advertising and content agreements with platforms like Google and Facebook.
I asked the offices of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat representing Kansas City, and Republican U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley for comment and had not heard back by my deadline.
The health of Missouri’s local newspapers varies, according to Trevor Vernon, past president of the Missouri Press Association and publisher of the weekly Eldon Advertiser.
“I think there are lots of people that are hanging on by a thread and others of us are doing fairly well, depending on how the economy is doing,” he said.
Eldon has a new factory and the Advertiser is doing well, printing 3,500 papers in a town of 5,000.
Missouri is a generally conservative state, where “fake news” complaints may get traction, but Vernon said trust is higher in local news.
“People say, ‘Oh that’s the media but that’s not you guys,’” he said.
Well, as The Northeast News made clear, that “media” will be the only choice if local news outlets don’t survive.