Sign of the times (copy)

By Ryan Binkley and Francis Wick

You may have recently learned—from a newspaper, perhaps — that McClatchy, one of the largest newspaper publishers in the country, filed for bankruptcy protection. For the sky-is-falling industry observers, it’s the latest sign that newspapers are joining the horse and buggy in the broom closet of nostalgia and obscurity. There is no room for the printed news, they would tell you. Not in a world where splitting a grubhub is a hot date.

To be fair, the naysayers have real evidence they can point to. It’s true that there are fewer newspapers around the country; it’s also true that there are fewer full-time reporter positions. Circulation is declining nationwide, and the double-punch of evaporating pre-print revenue (the money newspapers make when your local supermarket puts their specials in the paper) and falling classified revenue has made the economics of the business tougher.

“Death of the newspaper” narratives focus mainly on two tiers in the business: the mega-chains, which are increasingly owned by investment funds or are publicly traded, and the tiny mom-and-pop outlets, based in small towns, that are slowly disappearing. But such narratives ignore an entire segment of the industry that isn’t just surviving, but persisting: medium-sized, independent and family-owned newspaper chains that remain fully committed to producing newspapers in the communities they serve. We are not going away, we are not selling out, and we believe that journalism’s best days are ahead of us.

There is a morbid joke in this business: Every time we print an obituary, we lose another subscriber. As an entire generation of newspaper readers slowly leave us, they aren’t being replaced. The industry spent the better part of a decade trying to fight that trend, and lost. New readers will consume the news in a different format, on different platforms than their parents or grandparents. But Netflix wasn’t in the business of sending around red envelopes; they were in the entertainment business. Likewise, we are not in the business of making newspapers. We are in the business of making the news.

The basic value proposition still holds: people need to know what’s going on in their communities. They require credible, accurate and objective information that can inform their daily lives, and they’re willing to pay for it.

Two years ago, we pulled the Anchorage Daily News out of bankruptcy. We managed the operation to profitability within 11 months. Today, about one-third of our paid readership is online, and that number is growing faster than our print circulation is declining. For the first time in decades, our paid audience is growing; so is our top-line revenue. We’re adding new lines of business to diversify our revenue, and we’re interacting with and listening to our audience more than ever.

Wick Communications partnered with the Daily News to provide more efficient printing at our Wasilla facility, helping the bottom line for both companies. Wick has a generational commitment to newspapers going back nearly a hundred years. Francis Wick, the company’s CEO, collaborates with and promotes with other likeminded, privately held organizations. Wick has invested heavily in smaller communities around the country that are working toward a multichannel reader-engagement experience. These investments are focused on long-term sustainability; they require time and commitment for change.

We’re not alone. In Arkansas, Walter Hussman, the 73-year-old founder of WEHCO Media, is asking readers to trade in their printed newspaper for an iPad; Hussman will then come to your house to show you how to use it. He’s converted a shocking number of readers — about three quarters — and provided the rest of us with an ambitious example of what’s possible.

Our industry is communicating and working together like never before. Nationwide efforts by the American Press Institute, the Knight Foundation, and the Lenfest Institute have helped newsrooms share best practices and promoted experimentation. Though each community and newsroom is different, we often ask ourselves the same questions. Together, we’ve been able to plow new ground by sharing what we’re learning.

Honesty requires us to acknowledge that, in the long term, newspapers will exist online. Along the way, we will slowly ramp down production of the physical paper; with it, we’ll strip out the costs of production and delivery. But that will be a slow and incremental process. In the meantime, we are proving that we can also deliver and monetize the news online. Our newsrooms today might not look like you’d expect: Our contributors include millennial developers as well as seasoned editors, UX specialists and social-media ninjas working alongside reporters with deep roots in their beats. We are building distributed and agile organizations that can rapidly test novel ideas for engagement that are filtered through a century of journalistic traditions and values. And, as the online landscape changes and fractures, we will continue to meet our readers on the platform-du-jour and continue to lean on that basic value proposition. Newspapers once functioned as spotlights in a world of darkness. As we transition to the digital landscape and its overabundance of information, newspapers will remain the bearers of truth — even without the paper itself.

If you hear that hedge funds are strangling the news business and papers are dying every day, remember that there is a third group of us who clearly see a bright future for newspapers. We are investing in that future, learning and growing, and we continue to produce news for people who depend on it. We are moving forward unconstrained by legacy debt or legacy thinking. So when you hear from people that the newspaper business is dead, ask them where they got their information. The answer might be online, or on Facebook, or on their phone— but, chances are, that news was likely still produced by a newspaper.

Ryan Binkley and Francis Wick are the authors. Binkley is the CEO of Anchorage Daily News. He and his siblings brought the paper out of bankruptcy in 2017 and today publish one daily and four weekly papers around Alaska. Wick is the third generation CEO of Wick Communications, a 95-year-old family business based in Sierra Vista Arizona, which publishes 10 daily and 14 weekly papers across 11 states. This editorial originally published in the Columbia Journalism Review, which gave permission to be reprinted.

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