An editorial opinion piece written July 15 by Carol Hunter in the Des Moines Register is the latest warning about the Iowa newspaper’s declining subscription base. Hunter, the Register’s executive editor explains “Why we’re asking you to buy a subscription.”
It’s a signal that the Register needs the public’s help and financial support if Iowans expect the newspaper to continue to deliver the quality and quantity of local news reporting it currently offers. Hunter builds a powerful case for supporting the Register as a local news source.
“Strong local journalism is a building block of a strong community. Our journalism is valuable, and we have no qualms asking you to pay for it,” Hunter says.
The closing and shrinking of newspapers across the country is an epidemic. Nearly one in five newspapers have closed since 2004. The nation has lost over 1,800 newspapers in that time and many more have dramatically cut their staffing. Nationally, the number of newsroom employees at U.S. newspapers declined by 47% between 2008 and 2018.
The precipitous drop in advertising revenue has created a financial crisis for American newspapers. National newspaper ad revenue dropped from a high of nearly $50 million in 2004 to just $18 million in 2016.
Hunter references the ad losses suffered by the Register.
“In bygone years, full-page department store advertisements and classified ads for jobs, cars and homes provided most of the revenue needed to publish a daily newspaper. But the digital revolution has ushered in new reading habits (with many people preferring to get their news on their phone rather than in print). It also led to waves of brick-and-mortar store closings as online shopping increased,” reported Hunter.
With the massive drop in advertising revenue, newspapers have been forced to rely on charging subscribers more to keep the lights on. But just as ad revenue has plummeted, so has subscription numbers. In 1987, national daily newspapers’ paid subscriptions totaled over 62 million. By 2018 that number had nose-dived to just over 18 million.
The Des Moines Register’s decline in subscription numbers appear even more grim. According to a June Cityview analysis, the Register’s peak daily circulation was above 250,000 and their Sunday was in excess of 550,000. In the last quarter of 2018, the daily number had declined to 45,633 and the Sunday was 80,713.
Newspapers have attempted to make up their print losses with online digital subscribers. However, it’s questionable whether readers are willing to pay for digital subscriptions when so much is free on the internet.
Unfortunately, the increase in digital subscriptions doesn’t begin to fill the revenues needs for the Register. The Register’s digital subscriptions add up to less than 10,000 according to Cityview.
That provides the background for the changes Hunter announced. The major change is in regard to access to certain articles based on subscription status.
Much of the Register’s content will remain available using the current model. Currently, print subscribers have access to all content, print and digital. Non-subscribers have access to a limited number of articles each month before they are asked to subscribe.
Under the new policy, non-subscribers to the Register will continue to access most content including, “breaking news, routine government and business coverage as well as sports game stories” with a monthly limit.
But non-subscribers will no longer be able to access coverage about, “major investigations, explanatory projects, in-depth profiles and other exclusive work.” Those specific categories will be reserved for subscribers only.
Hunter presents a compelling need to support the benefits the Register provides to the public and the community. She cites numerous exclusive stories the Register has covered. She argues that the Register’s in-depth coverage ranges from business to sports.
She concludes by asking readers to subscribe: “For readers who don’t yet subscribe: I hope you’ll keep coming back to sample our work, and I urge you to buy a subscription.
For current subscribers: I thank each of you for supporting our newsroom and the local journalism we produce.”
Will Iowans respond to Hunter’s plea by supporting their local newspaper?
by Rick Smith