The Despair of the Holdout Newspaper Readers

When holdouts flee, it’s not bias, accuracy or hoaxes

Democracy, as the Washington Post reminds us, dies in darkness. For whatever light daily newspapers still shed, of course, it’s already dusk.

Fifty-six dailies closed or merged from 2004 to 2016. In all, more than 20% of the nation’s newspapers (including weeklies and monthlies) shut down from 2004 through 2018.

The reasons are common knowledge. Papers were mortally wounded when classified and then other advertising moved online after 2000.

Then they were castrated, generally without anesthetic, by many of the private-equity and hedge funds that came to dominate the business in the last 15 years.

Their business model: slash jobs so drastically that even declining newspapers turn profitable for a while. When the excess cash is gone or put to other uses, the investors either close the thing down or find a greater fool to buy it.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Journalism and Media’s exhaustive reports about the industry call the darkened communities they leave behind “news deserts.” In news deserts, we know, crooked politicians, wily developers, financial engineers and other energetic strivers get to cavort without much notice or restraint. While they frolic, we become less well-informed and measurably easier to manipulate. (See: U.S. Senate.)

Not to stretch the political metaphor too far, but in deserts slithery, prickly things tend to prosper and go underground during daylight.

Many dailies, however, do hang on under ownership assault. But there’s another acid in the seams: newspapers’ lowest-paid people are, day by day, driving the papers’ holdout readers away.

There used to be some romance in newspapering. Even delivering papers had a Horatio Alger mystique: boys and girls on their bikes, throwing papers in their first jobs. Some became Warren Buffett, submarine captains, Supreme Court justices, and baseball commissioners. They were “America’s ‘smallest businessmen’,” one corporate president/ex-newsboy sighed. Their cumulative work ethic and learned responsibilities “form a deep and rich reservoir of our leaders of tomorrow.”

Those days are long gone, as are a lot of leaders. (See, once again: U.S. Senate.) And there are few less-romantic scenes than at the pre-dawn loading docks where bleary home delivery carriers come to pick up papers for their routes. The pay is low. According to chron.com, drivers make $150 to $500 per week. Current job listings on Indeed.com suggest they can make $1000-$2000 a month in Seattle, $200-$300 a week in Racine, Wisconsin, up to $1,000 a month in Grand Rapids, Mi., $800-$1,100 a month in Washington, D.C., and $450 a week near Boston.

As independent contractors, they then pay for gas, insurance, and maintenance of their own vehicles.

To get the bounty, they wake up in the dark morning hours, cold or inclement, to make 35 to even 700 deliveries per shift.

Not surprisingly, this lonely, low-pay job has become nearly impossible to keep staffed.

Corporations took over the industry after the eccentric and reliably despotic newspaper barons of the past died off.

Their newsroom and staff cuts were markedly less glib and personal than the barons’ tantrums. They usually made them to replace humans with technology. Their explanations were often leavened with pledges of renewed fealty to newspapers’ larger purposes.

When corporate revenue shrank, the latest class of owners snapped up the wounded. These private-equity engineers‘ staff and product cuts are quantitative responses to quarterly fluctuations in their portfolio’s shareholder value.

They don’t often communicate publicly. When they do, there’s little pretense — or mention — of informing readers or even a burden of civic duty. UNC researchers found 10/13 Communications — the 2009 spawn of a news company and an investment firm — had a narrow mission statement. “The top priority at all of our newspapers is the sales department.” It controls costs “with a lean core of newsroom staff.”

BH Media Group, a Warren Buffett company, formed in 2012, already has 80 papers. CNHI has 100. New Media/Gatehouse (once called Fortress Investment Group, which once ate Liberty Group Publishing, which once ate Reporter-Progress Newspapers, etc.) has an estimated 450 papers in its chain. It’s the nation’s largest.

By 2016, the seven biggest investment groups in the industry owned 1,084.

At dailies, now one among funds’ auto dealership, real estate and insurance asset groups, newsroom employment plummeted. Pew Research’s 2019 Newspaper Fact Sheet found that newsroom population dropped from 71,640 in 2004 to 42,450 in 2016. It fell another 11%, to 37,900, by 2018.

In Colorado, where I happen to live, the dominant private-equity firm with news assets is Alden Global Capital.

In the calliope world of media finance, Alden owns 50.1% of Digital First Media, which it rebranded as MediaNews Group and sometimes as MNG Enterprises. Alden’s president is Heath Freeman, who Bloomberg Opinion’s Joe Nocera describes as “a character straight out of the movie Wall Street.”

Now in his late 30s, he has acquired an estimated 500 newspapers since 2007. UNC’s “Expanding News Deserts” estimates that, after churn and shutdowns, he had 100 papers in his portfolio in mid-2019.

At his Denver Post, he cut the reporting staff from 184 in 2012 to 66 in 2019. At other Alden papers, Nocera found 19 remaining journalists at the Pottstown (Pa.) Mercury, down from 73 in 2012. Another Pennsylvania paper, the Norristown Times-Herald, went from 45 reporters to 12. Nocera found similarly drastic cuts at the Orange County Register and the San Jose Mercury. Four reporters cover 34 cities for its Orange County papers. In December, Alden captured board seats at Tribune Publishing, which owns dailies in Chicago, Baltimore, New York and Orlando. In February, at least 14 Tribune staffers were gone.

Before that, Freeman pulled $158 million out of his newspaper assets to fund Alden’s acquisitions of PaylessShoeSource and the Fred’s Pharmacy chain. The firm took still more money — 90% of its newspaper workers’ pension savings — and, failing to detect the violation of federal law, deposited it into two Alden-owned investment funds. The U.S. Dept. of Labor investigated, although Alden has since put the money back into funds in which it does not have a profit interest.

In truth, the quality of the Post’s journalism hasn’t suffered much. The problem is that there isn’t much of it. From a reader’s view, there’s not even enough infrastructure left to produce and distribute a reliable daily newspaper.

People, it seems, don’t often cancel daily papers because of bad reporting. Yes, they leave for more convenient, weightier, more attractive news alternatives. But remaining home subscribers these days leave — or try to leave — because of bad delivery.

Witness some recent comments about daily newspapers on Yelp:

The New York Times:

Why can’t they hire reliable delivery people? Our delivery person half the time does not deliver our Sun NYT… They really need to manage (or fire) the bad carriers.

The NYT represents some of the very best print journalism in the world yet my experience of trying to access it both online and through print media gets an F-. Extremely frustrating.

Chicago Tribune:

I actually LIKE this paper and I will continue to buy it on Sundays, but at my local 7–11 rather than home delivery. As other Yelpers have reported, it is SO hard to cancel a subscription once they have your credit card!

Los Angeles Times:

I cancelled home delivery four months ago because I got sick of calling on Sunday mornings to complain about “missing paper”. Silly me, I thought “I’ll try again.” Guess what? No paper this morning.

Atlanta Journal Constitution:

This is the worst “service” on the planet. First, it is very expensive, second, when you PAY to have an actual newspaper delivered (and pay a very PREMIUM PRICE) you would expect that it actually be delivered.

Bias or inaccuracy complaints are rare. On the Post’s Yelp page, you’ll find five complaints that, “We did not get either the Post or The NY Times delivered on Sunday.”

One fed-up reader likened trying to cancel to living in The Hotel California. “You can subscribe but good luck cancelling your subscription. 2 1/2 hours on hold day one, transferred twice, then transferred to a supervisor then put on hold til they closed at 5pm. Still trying to cancel.”

To another, the long hold time was like “the Hunger Games or something, you can get on the island, but you can’t get off unless you maim. Unfortunate[ly] the customer service and shady policies hide the good work of the journalists working for this crappy organization.”

Perhaps unrelated: On January 3rd, 2020, the paper reported that an assailant shot a Post delivery man in the hand.

I have an alibi.

Eight years ago, 416,676 people read the Denver Post, winner of nine Pulitzer prizes. By 2018, weekday readers averaged 134,537. Sunday circulation was down to 253,261 readers. While about a third of its readers fell away, metro Denver’s population grew by 11.6%.

I, for one, resisted cancelling and resisted some more. I still love newspapers. I used to write for newspapers. They’re a crucial part of having an informed citizenry. The threats to the industry are heartbreaking. I wanted no part of accelerating its decline.

But, like thousands of others, literally years of frequent calls to customer service finally got to me. I canceled by email on February 16, 2020 and, ha!, asked for my money back.

They sent two Posts the day after I cancelled. Two more arrived each of the next two days. Now, most days, we’re down to one again when we get it. Turns out you can check in any time you like, but apparently you can never, ever leave.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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