This is an unsettling time for everyone. We wonder what lies ahead for our local schools, small businesses and farms. Can the situation return to normal, or how will our way of doing things be permanently different? What should change?
We have felt the jolting effects of the coronavirus shutdown at the Lynden Tribune & Print Co. too. We operate with about a one-third crew across the plant, including all printing. For weeks now, we have put out a single-section paper, mostly without sports and special theme sections. It’s often quiet in the back press areas.
This just plain feels weird — with regular people absent, jobs scaled back, things not done like they usually are.
I am sure many of you can relate. We’re in this together.
Looking ahead, we hope for a rebound of the economy before the government life-support checks end.
And now to the point of this column. I debated what my title should be, whether the negative “Newspaper voices could go silent” or the more hopeful “Newspapers forging a new model.” Then I realized it is both.
We are all sizing up the rather grim present and trying to make a way into an uncertain future.
My approach to newspapering is rooted in the community itself — several different communities, in fact, covered by the Lynden Tribune and Ferndale Record. I want to take my cue for what is news, and what are deserving stories, from the life of the community and its people and its varied groups and economic sectors and unique qualities — life as it is happening here, on the ground. It is not some news agenda set elsewhere.
When I reflect on the thousands of stories I have written, along with news staff colleagues, across my 40 years here, it is an amazing kaleidoscope of the life of our communities. And you know what? I can think of no other media outlet that is going to do those stories for you.
To me, there is never a shortage of news and feature stories that can be written in our papers. Community life at the local level is that dynamic, if you have the eye to see it. I’ll share a secret: I keep a “back list” of story leads that may not be on our list to get to for this week, but in the next few weeks or months, or for a certain theme or section, the time will be right.
But I need to tell you something else: Newspapers are struggling.
They are in a fight to survive.
I am not exaggerating. About 2,000 American newspapers have shut down, leaving their communities without local coverage. The number of newspaper journalists has dropped by 10,000 since I entered the profession. An astonishing 30,000 news-industry jobs have been lost since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., and several weeklies in Washington State have closed.
Traditionally, newspapers have depended on advertising from their local economy to create the space for news reporting. These two sides, news and advertising, worked together to be the business model of success for newspapers. We are a vehicle to reach a mass audience. But the internet, over time, has undercut our accustomed model. And the shocking impact of the coronavirus on local businesses has blown that picture wide open.
A new model is needed. Newspapers must be supported more by their community readers.
Advertising has been about 90 percent of revenue for newspapers. Can the model shift to 50-50, on an equal basis with subscriber support?
Already six years ago, an ambitious project headed by the University of North Carolina produced the book “Saving Community Journalism.” The new reality for journalism in the internet era was diagnosed and various remedies suggested. The shift to community-supported journalism was one recommendation. Another was stronger online presence — do you know that all of our printed paper content is also available at lyndentribune.com, with a subscription?
The Seattle Times, like the Lynden Tribune an independent quality family-owned enterprise for more than 100 years, has been at the forefront of ideas and action to save newspapers. Its Free Press Initiative seeks solutions for local journalism. For instance, one urgently needed action is reform of federal law to prioritize local ownership, versus large chains, and the Times says the burden is on Congress to make that happen.
Many other American newspapers are reaching out to their communities the way the Lynden Tribune and Ferndale Record are now. We ask for you, our readers, to recognize the value of our weekly news product in its coverage of city governments, businesses, agriculture, sports, schools, community events, crime and courts, and features of all types.
We are committed, and eager, to continue the role that the Lynden Tribune has had in the community we love for now well over a century in the Lewis family. But it has to be on a different basis.
We believe our pages are a great way for advertisers to reach a local audience. But we cannot rely upon advertising for our support as in the past. A new chapter has opened. We ask readers to recognize that reality and step forward with support that keeps this local news enterprise going strong into the future.
This is written from the heart of what we are doing week in and week out, year in and year out, here at the Tribune. Thanks for reading and considering all of this. Your support is deeply appreciated.