The Way Forward: The death of print, and the future of local news

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

At this writing, the Mercury is still an award-winning local newspaper with a readership, counting those who find it online, of over 40,000. We will maintain its website, with all stories published in the Mercury to date. And we still have, after months of work with lawyers and accountants, a document that makes it possible for a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit to help an independent newspaper. It’s an unusual relationship that got the attention of the Columbia Journalism Review and some radio talk shows as far away as California. But now comparable models are emerging in other parts of the country, and such public-private hybrids may help sustain journalism well into the uncharted future.

I still believe that, properly capitalized, the Mercury could still be a successful newspaper.

The Knoxville journalism landscape is changing in ways that would seem to offer an unprecedented opening for an independent weekly. It has been only two years and change since the Mercury’s first issue, but in that time, Knoxville’s daily paper has changed corporate hands twice, and suffered major layoffs. The News Sentinel, which offered me my first job in full-time journalism almost 40 years ago, is a newspaper with a strong heritage. It still employs some good reporters, some of them friends of mine. But now owned by a profit-driven corporation out of state, it’s covering less local news today than at any time in its 90-plus-year history.

Because of the daily’s staff and coverage reductions, as recent as last month, community leaders were expressing to me gratitude that the Mercury would be there to pick up the slack. I still think we could do that.

Reviving the Mercury will take a great deal of capital, though, much more than we have been able to raise via community donations.

To some, the Mercury’s problems are merely a further expression of the oft-trumpeted death of print, and that the answer is as simple as switching to a website promoted on social media.

That premise comes with a good many ironies or paradoxes, if not disproofs. The Mercury has been available both online, through a Facebook-driven website, and in print, and both versions have been popular. Every week people picked up the print version, and in the last two years it’s been about as popular with readers as any paper before the Internet, including my longtime employer Metro Pulse. When papers ran out at certain locations, which was more common than not, I got complaints.

Then there’s the issue of sustainability. Yes, people are reading things on their phones more than ever before. Paying advertisers are not moving to that platform in nearly proportional numbers. Although a similar number of people encounter the Mercury mainly in print and online, the print version makes several times more money.

We first investigated the idea of an online-only city newspaper back in 2014, and couldn’t figure out how it would work with even a small paid staff. We explored it again in a more sophisticated way early this year, without any more luck.

In 2017, the era of social media, it’s still much easier to find examples of traditional print weeklies, with staffs, than online city journals with paid staffs. I know of only a few online city-news journals that seem to work. Some of the best of them have major foundation support (and by major, I mean annual grants totaling in the six or seven digits). Some others are related to a print journal that still brings in more revenue.

Some city-news websites have a paywall, and charge their online subscribers more than $100 a year. For that, all you get is the right to read their posts. (I admit I’ve never subscribed to an online journal. I respect them in theory, but can’t get by the basic psychology of it, that my participating in their project costs me, but not them.) Maybe that would work here. I would rather write for a paper that everybody can afford to read. Even people who can’t afford smart phones. There are more of them than we acknowledge in our distracted era.

If you know of a way to support rigorous news coverage through an online-only venue, let me know.

Also pertinent to the fate of the Mercury and the rumored death of print is that, strange as it may seem, there are more local print projects than there were when I first got into journalism 35-odd years ago. Granted, back then there were two daily papers. But in the 1980s, long before most people had any inkling of being connected to an Internet, young people occasionally tried to start a weekly or monthly tabloid literary or music journal, but they rarely lasted more than a dozen issues. And deeper-pocketed entrepreneurs kept trying to launch a city magazine, a glossy monthly like other cities had. And, always, failing.

I recently ran across an article written after the demise of Citytimes, a short-lived monthly magazine for which I was a columnist, and, rather briefly, arts and entertainment editor. After a whole string of magazine failures, a newspaper reporter interviewed professor Kelly Leiter, head of UT’s journalism school, about whether Knoxville was likely to ever sustain a local magazine. No, he answered. There just wasn’t enough community support for that sort of thing, he said.

That was in 1985.

Things change. Now, in the print-is-dead era, Knoxville has two glossy print monthlies, apparently thriving regardless of what you think of their quality. They’ve both been in business for several years now.

Other print publications have bloomed in the Inernet era. There’s the Focus, a paper weekly that has evolved mainly in this social-media century, combining a lively range of soft community news with occasional jolts of hard-right politics. And the Shopper News, a once-independent paper that grew and was absorbed by the daily, but still distributes paper issues. And Blank, a very independent ad-based print arts monthly paper, which has been around for several years now, much more durable than several similar efforts in the ’70s and ’80s.

The weekly Ledger, based in Nashville, is a print weekly much more ambitious, bigger, thicker, smarter than its predecessor journals who exist mainly to post legal notices. It carries lots of light local news, some well-written local features, lots of sports analysis, and a fun crossword puzzle.

These aren’t rare survivors of a quaint print era. They’re print ventures that emerged and flourished during the Internet era.

None of them approximate the work we’ve done here. But they do all do complicate the advertising landscape for an earnest news source like the Mercury.

In fact, my dark suspicion is that the biggest change we’ve witnessed, related to funding local news, is that advertisers now have lots of choices of cheerful, noncontroversial print platforms, and don’t have to be associated with anything as dreary and unpleasant as news.

It’s not like it was in Cas Walker’s day. Two newspapers and about three radio stations represented almost all the advertising prospects in town. The popular grocer-demagogue regarded the News Sentinel as his enemy. In 1946, that newspaper led the effort to remove Cas from the office of mayor. That paper criticized, ridiculed, and effectively deposed him.

And Cas kept advertising in the News Sentinel. The paper profited from it, and his stores profited from it. The News Sentinel was what people read, and he knew that all his literate customers, radio fans, and City Council constituents would see his ads there. A businessman can’t afford to ignore it.

It’s not like that anymore. Advertisers are more distracted, not only by Internet options, but also broadcasting and more print options, including direct mail, many of which now have little to do with news, that didn’t exist in the 1940s. That’s why a donor base may need to be a permanent part of the model for local newspapers in the future.

The Mercury has been, as far as I’m concerned, a success. All our work resulted in 108 issues that stirred up lots of stories that haven’t otherwise gotten attention. Along the way, we won a couple dozen awards from juries of professional journalists who were impressed with the quality of our work. Everyone who donated to the Mercury can be assured their money was used for worthwhile things.

In the last century, by conventional terms, falling 30 or 35 percent short of a break-even goal for advertising might have sounded grim for a newspaper. Maybe that could improve with time, I don’t know. Metro Pulse’s entire revenue model was based on advertising. What a lot of people don’t know is that it lost money for more than a decade, and then became profitable for several years in the 21st century. Whether in spite of, or with the help of, the Internet, or both, I don’t claim to know.

This time, we didn’t have a deep bank account to fall back on, so we can’t keep trying new strategies. We did as well as we could have, and we were 30 percent short.

But maybe that’s not bad, if we assume our readers will help. If we were a museum or a symphony or a public radio station, requiring that just 30 percent of our revenue needs to come from donations or grants would sound wonderful, an impossible dream. But we’re new to this, and we weren’t able to raise that much this time. Maybe we’re just not used to thinking of newspapers the way we think of public radio or public TV. Maybe we will be someday.

I still think our basic model can work. It has to.

Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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