Back in 2016 when I worked as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, we used to have rhetorical debates in the newsroom, imagining a day when people would no longer walk to their front door to pick up the newspaper.
How long would people keep doing this? Five years? Ten years? Forever?
The answer seems to be upon us. In 2016, Pittsburgh had two printed daily newspapers owned by people with seemingly bottomless pockets.
But then Richard Scaife, the billionaire owner of the Trib, died in 2014 and his newspaper company had a moment of reckoning when staff realized they could not continue to keep losing millions of dollars. Trib Total Media stopped printing in Pittsburgh in 2016, but it continues to put newspapers in Tarentum and Greensburg.
The Post-Gazette, which in 2018 eliminated two days of print – on Tuesdays and Saturdays – now says it plans to drop two more days. Starting in October, the paper will only print on Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
In a letter to union leaders, Block Communications, which owns the newspaper, said it also will stop distributing The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. That may very well signal the end of these national publications in this market for home delivery.
What happens when newspapers stop publishing? People who do not have access to digital devices lose access to information.
It seems hard to believe in this age, but when The Daily News closed in McKeesport at the end of 2015, seniors living there told me they no longer knew when their friends had died. Tube City Almanac publishes an online obituary, but these residents said they did not have smartphones or access to a computer. They just got left behind.
Most of the rest of us have shifted to getting news whenever and wherever we want on our phones, tablets, laptops, office desktops, etc. The Trib offers its stories for free online, banking on getting enough clicks to sell digital advertising to generate revenue.
The Post-Gazette gives readers a few free stories each month, but requires a digital subscription to keep reading. They also launched PG NewsSlide and PG-e, digital versions of the day’s news for subscribers. They’re hoping enough people will value the digital content enough to pay for it.
Under either model, newspapers still struggle to make enough money to cover the costs of a huge newsroom with reporters who cover township and school board meetings, review restaurants, theater shows and movies, report on sporting events from high school football to the Steelers, and track business developments.
That doesn’t count the investigative reporters who look at the challenges facing our communities and then ask the difficult questions. As investigators, Luis Fabregas and I once discovered that hospitals were giving liver transplants to patients who were not sick enough to need them, putting their lives at risk. Fewer reporters write those kinds of stories now.
Digital advertising does not drive near the amount of money that print advertising does. That’s why newspapers hang on to print as long as possible. Yes, many readers like the tactile feel of a newspaper, but the reality is advertisers are the ones that like print the best. Many still believe that a larger, printed message in the newspaper resonates with readers in a different way than digital ones do, and they’re willing to pay more.
In print, a newspaper can say that the advertiser’s message will go to many thousands of homes — they don’t know how many actually view the ad. But online, the news outlet is more accountable, often charging only for the number of people who actually look at a page (or a page view). Often, it’s far less than the number of overall print subscribers.
Does all this signal the end of newspapers? It’s a question I get asked a lot. Undoubtedly, it means the end of printed newspapers at some point. The Post-Gazette has said it intends to move to a digital format, and as long as it continues to print even one day a week, it must maintain print shop workers and delivery drivers. At some point soon, that will become too much of a cost to bear.
It also likely means the end of sprawling newsrooms with reporters attempting to cover every aspect of our community, which to a large extent already has happened. It’s also worth noting: The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents Post-Gazette newsroom workers, has been working without a contract since 2017.
Given the Post-Gazette publisher’s newsroom rant earlier this year, it’s obvious the family would like this issue to go away. Which seems to suggest it can’t afford to pay the reporters what they want.
This does not, however, mean the end of news.
I expect the Post-Gazette, like the Trib, will figure out a way to maintain a digital newsroom that still covers the Pittsburgh region long into the future.
Unexpectedly, we also have seen a few print news outlets popping up and managing to make enough money to keep publishing. Over the past week, I have spent time with editors at the Mon Valley Independent, a printed daily newspaper that serves communities from Monessen to McKeesport, and Pittsburgh Current, the alt-weekly (that is printed by the PG) that comes out every other week.