If the falling circulation for the nation’s newspapers continues, that headline could become a reality. What would an America without newspapers mean to political understanding and awareness? Investigative journalists led by the New York Times and the Washington Post have exposed the Trump administration’s lies and their attempted cover-up. If America didn’t have newspaper journalists digging deep into the Trump Russian connection, the cover-up and the obstruction of justice Trump might have fired special counsel Robert Mueller long ago.
A free press is the only barrier preventing authoritarian regimes like Trump’s from brainwashing the public with fake news. Newspapers are one of the few media sources that can go beyond just reporting the news. Their stable of investigative reporters can go deep within the stories and mine for the truth. Recall the Watergate cover-up of the Nixon era. Without the dogged persistence of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein along with the backing of the Washington Post, Nixon’s cover-up might never have been exposed.
FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, the rest of AM hate radio, Breitbart News and other conservative media outlets already dominate much of the political broadcasting space. Throw the Russian propaganda into the mix and you have the formula for fake news. We can’t allow the facts and the truth to be swamped by lies and deception.
In order to preserve an independent free press it’s essential to maintain a healthy and profitable newspaper establishment. Unfortunately, many newspapers are losing both circulation and in turn advertising revenue. The reduced income is forcing them to cut reporters, opinion writers and investigative positions.
According to the Pew Research Center both print and digital circulation of U.S. daily newspapers dropped 8% in 2016. This marks the 28th consecutive year of declines in circulation. In 2016 total Sunday circulation, generally the largest day’s readers, fell to the lowest level since 1945.
We can all guess why newspaper circulation is plummeting. The explosion of digital has replaced newspapers as the preferred source of media by consumers. Newspaper are attempting to move to digital as readers shun print but are struggling to turn sufficient profit on digital alone.
The other major source of newspaper revenue is advertising and it has fallen dramatically as well. It dropped 10% in 2016 and total newspaper advertising revenue is barely a third of what is was just 10 years ago. Readers are resisting paying the digital price newspapers require to survive and sufficiently staff their investigative bureaus.
The one exception to the falling newspaper circulation is the New York Times. It has actually seen an increase in subscriptions since Trump’s election. They attribute it to the increased activism and concern from progressives seeking the truth.
However, for newspapers like the Des Moines Register, the crashing circulation rate is of major concern. City View, an independent monthly Des Moines paper, has been reporting regularly on the Register’s falling circulation numbers. The Des Moines Register’s Sunday circulation in the first quarter of 2017 was at 105,371, down 14 percent from a year ago when it was 128,508. Its peak year was 1951 when it was at 553,000. The print circulation for the daily Register was at 59,365, down 11 percent from 66,700 a year ago. The digital subscriptions are less than 5,000, a small part of the total – not an economically sustainable number.
Many Iowa newspapers have come under fire for raising rates, but it is likely a consequence of falling subscriptions and lost advertising. There is no free lunch, and if Iowans want to maintain the excellence of their newspapers, they must support them.
Imagine not having the Register’s journalists at the state Capitol holding the Republicans accountable. Tony Leys’ and Jason Clayworth’s reporting on dozens of Medicaid privatization horror stories have rallied the public for change. Lee Rood, the Register Watchdog columnist, has uncovered a number of important stories. Political reporter Jason Noble brings crucial insight to the political battles between the two parties.
The Register’s Editorial Board, along with editorial writers Rekha Busu and Kathie Obradovich, keep the spotlight on the crucial issues important to Iowans.
In December, Carol Hunter, Executive Editor, wrote an article detailing the top 15 Register investigations in 2017 that helped right wrongs and hold officials accountable. Without a staff of investigative reporters, those stories might never have been revealed. The Des Moines Register’s slogan is as relevant today as ever: “The newspaper Iowa depends on.”
Where would Iowa get the in depth reporting currently conducted by the Des Moines Register if it were to disappear? It’s certainly not just the Register, all Iowa newspapers may be in jeopardy as the public embraces the digital news. Iowa is home to a number of award winning local newspapers and they deserve our support.
Shouldn’t Iowa progressives consider subscribing to their local papers if they are adequately covering local affairs? Subscribing to local papers is an investment in maintaining essential investigative journalism and enhancing the free press. One might think of it as a contribution in search of the truth.
by Rick Smith