The Death Throes of a Small Town Newspaper

Regular readers of my ramblings here will recall that the trials and tribulations of my hometown newspaper, The Cecil Whig, was a regular topic of conversation a couple of years ago, before I moved out of Cecil County and, honestly, I finally lost interest in watching what was a staple of the community I grew up in crash and burn as spectacularly as The Whig was.  It reached the point where I simply had to avert my eyes from the carnage. 

Well, in the time since I last mentioned anything going on with the formerly-distinguished, nearly two century old newspaper, things have actually gotten worse.  The Whig has now dropped from printing five days a week to three, a shift, I’m told, was horribly unpopular with many of their regular subscribers.  More than that, layoffs have continued periodically, including another region-wide purge reportedly shedding somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 people from Chesapeake Publishing’s (The Whig’s immediate parent company) payrolls in the past few weeks.  Their long-standing office in Elkton is up for sale, nearly vacant as it stands after the printing facility that operated from there was shuttered nearly two years ago.  The office itself, where something like 200 full time workers were employed not that long ago, has been pared down, unbelievably, to less than a dozen, reportedly.

With the sorry state of the newspaper industry these days, what’s happened at the Cecil Whig isn’t really surprising.  It is, however, difficult to watch a once-venerable institution be picked to pieces like this.  Sometimes, I almost think bankruptcy and an outright shutdown would’ve been preferable to this death by a thousand cuts.  At least that way, the paper’s legacy would’ve remained relatively intact.  When the doors do finally shut on them now, will anyone really miss the wispy, hollowed out shell that was left during its final days?  I kind of doubt it.

At this point, it serves no purpose to rehash what went wrong.  Like many in the newspaper industry, good decisions in the face of technologically driven change were virtually nonexistent at Chesapeake and The Whig, overwhelmed as they were, and continue to be, by the poor choices of those who never really came to grips with the disruption that shredded their business model.  None of that really matters anymore, with the Whig down to a skeleton crew, soon moving to a smaller office, then, very likely, oblivion sometime later.

No matter how difficult times have become for them, it does seem like the hits just keep on coming, taking away a little more of what was once their sole domain. Earlier Today, I read this piece on the Cecil Times website about a battle going on within the Cecil County government about where its sizeable (for a small town) legal ad business will go in the future.  Legal ads are one of the last bastions of classified revenue still flowing into newspapers’ formerly dominant positions in communication, made so by local laws that generally require publication in a region’s “paper of record.” It’s also one I happen to believe is in dire need of reform. Frankly, in a time of shrinking tax receipts and shriveling municiple budgets, there is very little justification in sending good money after bad by continuing to pay monopoly rents to a fading, formerly only-game-in-town newspaper business. According to the Cecil Times piece, the county government spent upwards of $150,000 on legal ads with the Whig last year, a sum that strikes me as massively wasteful, particularly considering how the newspaper itself has continued to decline in relevance and readership.

A few years ago, when I was publishing Pet Companions Magazine, I put out about 20,000 monthly issues for a year between 32 and 52 pages each, with a full color glossy cover and my print bill for the entire year was less than a third of the county’s legal ad bill. The glossy cover alone accounted for about a quarter of that amount, too. So, what’s stopping the county government from publishing its own legal ad magazine monthly in regular 8 x 10 size or so on newsprint? They could put out 20,000 to 25,000 a month and bulk drop them for free everywhere in the county where the Whig is available. They could also post everything freely on the county’s website, provide a pdf file free for download or, if they’re especially adventurous, put in a little extra effort to format it into an ebook and make that available freely as well. The county could pay someone to compile the info, typeset it, layout the publication, get it to a printer, have the finished print run delivered, bulk drop the entire county and create the pdf and ebook files for, at most, half of what they pay The Whig for position in its rapidly thinning classified pages, if not significantly less.

As many have learned over the past few years, it has become much cheaper and more efficient to communicate directly with the public than to go through the traditional path of an intermediary like newspapers. With the local paper losing its influence, we see more and more advertisers, writers, and even readers circumventing the old ways altogether. With the crush of needed funds in localities all over the country, it really doesn’t track any longer for governments to pay exorbitantly for newspaper advertising. Crucial government information can be passed along to the public in any number of formats, print and digital, without that traditional large expense.

The fight in Cecil County shows another interesting issue with governments supporting those who’s job it is to cover them with advertising revenue, as well. Cecil County Commissioner Diana Broomell obviously has a problem with the content of The Cecil Guardian, a competitor of the Whig who put in a much cheaper bid on the legal ad business and got legal approval as a qualifying newspaper from a judge. She clearly wants no part of shifting that business The Guardian’s way, savings be damned. The Whig’s coverage of county business, on the other hand, has either been pared down to non-existent or is outright positive. Do we really want to have a situation where local newspapers, struggling for revenue, have to softball their coverage of the local government for fear of losing that ad money?

With the current and constantly improving technology, there’s no reason at all why local governments can’t communicate cheaply and effectivly with the people they represent on their own in matters like legal ads. The laws about “paper of record” are becoming more and more costly to follow, and have lost much of the justifications for their existence in the first place. If the paper was donating the space out of a sense of community, that would be one thing, but a $150,000 annual advertising bill seems to me to be a harbinger of a past better left to history.

This illustrates why it’s both sad and inevitable that newspapers will soon meet their demise. Sad because we are leaving a rich and storied element of our past behind us. Inevitable because there is virtually no single element of a newspaper’s role in the community that can’t be done better, cheaper, and more efficiently by any number of alternatives. Newspapers have always been intermediaries between the public and institutions, be it government, private or business interests. The digital shift going on now has very effectively removed the necessity of intermediaries from much of open communication.

I am sorry to see a classic element of society like the newspaper struggle and fall, but, as with all of us in our day-to-day decisions, needs must win out. That means the county government and the people they represent are much better served now and in the future by going directly to the people and using the extra $80,000-$100,000 they save on things like infrastructure, firefighters, teachers, and what have you. To do anything else in this day and age with these present conditions, is a level of wastefulness we can no longer afford. Tradition doesn’t pay the bills.

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