All is not well: UP newspapers endure in era of COVID, cutbacks and social media

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Rural Insights or its members.

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The death of newspapers has been heralded for decades. Readership has declined and hundreds of weeklies and dailies have closed and consolidated. Advertising dollars that traditionally supported journalism have migrated to Facebook, digital websites, bloggers and other social media. Fewer people read print today and get more of their news from television, radio and digital sources.

And yet, newspapers survive, especially in rural areas where main street businesses depend on the local paper to advertise and readers in small towns want their happenings—weddings, deaths, high school sports, government meetings—chronicled and remembered. In 1980, the Upper Peninsula supported eight daily newspapers and several weeklies. Today all of those dailies and many weeklies still survive.

That does not mean that all is well. There are significant challenges to news coverage, the timeliness of the reporting, the capacity to make a profit, and the engagement of readers who seem to have less patience for the written word. Now there is the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic downturn in its earliest stages. What it will all mean to newspapers and their survival is speculative, but it will be a trying, possibly even existential period for print media.

When The Daily Globe in Ironwood celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, Managing Editor Larry Holcombe and his staff published a commemorative edition. In their investigations they found that the paper was established because the business community and the citizens of the Gogebic Iron Range were “hungry for a daily newspaper.”

“The businesses needed a vehicle to advertise, to communicate with their customers and that is still true today,” Holcombe says.

The Globe like other dailies in the Upper Peninsula has carved out a specific geographic coverage area on the far west end where it has little competition from other papers and television stations located in Marquette. Often there is no other media covering events and meetings, such as school boards, townships, planning boards, city councils.

“We do a lot of meeting coverage to tell people what’s going on—what is happening with their tax dollars,” he says. “There’s a lot of interest in that.”

The paper and its journalists also bring a degree of professionalism that has yet to be replaced by social media and bloggers, says Holcombe.

Rumors and opinions fly on social media but the paper is the place where people read straightforward, fact-based accounts, says Holcombe.

“We have standards and write things straight up, “ he says. “We have a lot of institutional memory about what has happened in the past and what the facts are, and I think that brings a lot of value.”

What has been hard to maintain, however, is the timeliness of its print product. The Globe, circulation 4,500, publishes five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday. Recently the paper changed its distribution method. It dismissed its news carriers in Ironwood, Wakefield, and Bessemer.  Drivers drop papers at stores and gas stations but the bulk go to post offices for mailing. Rural and town subscribers get their newspapers the following day.

“It was a financial decision, and it has changed the way we do things. We work on tomorrow’s paper today rather than today’s paper today,” he says. “So far it has worked out.”

A few years ago, The Globe was bought by Stevenson Newspapers, a small chain from Wyoming. The UP’s four largest dailies—The Mining Journal in Marquette, The Daily News in Iron Mountain, The Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton, and The Daily Press in Escanaba—have been owned by corporate entities since the 1970s. The current owner—Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, West Virginia—keeps a low profile. Its name does not appear on its 40 daily community papers. Its UP publishers are reluctant to discuss Ogden operations. Calls and e-mails to the home office in West Virginia go unanswered as well.

In late 2019, The Mining Journal suspended its Sunday edition, and now puts out a weekend paper that carries all the important Sunday advertisement circulars. The move was promoted as an enhanced, expanded edition but clearly it was a cost savings measure with scant improvement to news coverage. In late June 2020, The Mining Journal shut down its printing press and laid off circulation workers, delivery drivers and newspaper carriers. The paper will be printed in Powers at a plant owned by Ogden Newspapers that prints the Iron Mountain and Escanaba papers. The Mining Journal will be delivered to homes through the mail.

The paper—like newspapers everywhere—struggles to maintain profit margins under pressure from declining revenues. Classified advertising, which once brought in significant dollars to newspapers, has nearly collapsed as people list their items on Facebook, Craigslist and eBay.  Display advertising—at least before the pandemic—has been the reason many small, community dailies have survived. Even public notices, those legal announcements that the government requires be published in a newspaper of record, have the potential someday to go digital and be lost as a revenue source.

When corporate owners make cuts, the pain is usually felt in the newsrooms. Over the past 20 years—a time of great consolidation in the newspaper industry–news staffs have been slashed, says Michael Barthel, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Barthel specializes in media studies.

The number of reporters, editors and photographers in the industry declined 47 percent from 2004 through layoffs, staff reductions and newspaper closures. Chains bought up newspapers, made them less local, inserted their own content, ran public relations material from big, local employers and reduced staff. Rarely does corporate ownership enhance the editorial side of the business.

“It does affect the news coverage. You need reporters and editors because no wire service is going to cover your small town or neighborhood,” says Barthel.

The Mining Gazette in Houghton has had three publishers in the past six years, and each one has reduced news staff. There are just two news reporters and two sports reporters covering a four-county area in a one-hour radius. Managing Editor David Karnosky does some writing, too.

“It is very difficult to get to everything that happens in four counties,” says Karnosky. “We have government meetings that we can’t cover, and we have to wait for the meeting minutes to come out and see if we can make a story that way.”

To compensate, the paper uses stringers—local people in outlying towns—who occasionally file stories or take pictures. Quality, however, is inconsistent.

“They are not trained as journalists and often don’t like to cover something that doesn’t interest them,” Karnosky explains. “It’s easy to get a sports stringer to go to a basketball game, but much more difficult to get someone to sit in on a two-hour contentious government meeting over marijuana, and then write a story a few hours later saying why it was contentious and why it took two hours.

“…we try to train them but it is never enough.”

Since the advent of the Internet, much has been written about citizen or street journalism– everyday people collecting, reporting and disseminating news. In some small towns where papers have closed, social media sites attempt to function as replacements, says Barthel. The results vary widely, depending upon the skills and ethics of the people curating the sites, and monitoring postings, which can quickly deteriorate into rumor mongering and polarized discussions.

Established newspapers usually allow for debate on their editorial pages but also screen letters-to-the editor for libel and personal attacks. Bloggers may lack transparency, publish rumors and shape their so-called news and “scoops” on anonymous sources. Social media is not the same as an ethical news organization and journalist covering a story, says Barthel.

“Our research shows it more as an elevated or expanded discussion, something like a virtual version of people sitting around and talking about an issue in a coffee shop,” he says. “It has a grassroots orientation and the ability to let a lot of people join into the discussion. It’s not necessarily journalism.”

Pew has better data on big dailies than community newspapers, but it studies news consumption habits of Americans. There is a hunger for local news and for delivering it online to smartphones, mobile devices, tablets, social media, and home computers. And that may be the direction for newspapers, which still employs more journalists than television, radio and other media combined.

Newspapers actually have an advantage because they tend to have a more digital audience than radio and television, says Barthel.  Newspapers were the first news mediums to make the digital transition and put their product online.

The challenge for small newspapers is monetization–Are papers able to put up a paywall? Can they sell online advertising along with display advertising? Do they have the infrastructure in place to sell ads and bill subscribers? A lot of small papers do not have that expertise. As well, they have customer resistance to overcome. Americans have been accustomed to accessing the Internet for free, but that is changing. Very large newspapers—The New York Times and Wall Street Journal–have successfully added pay walls and increased their subscriber base, says Barthel.

Digital subscriptions may not solve the revenue problems for small newspapers, but can stem the loss of readership, says Barthel.

“Overall the revenue coming from subscriptions is maintaining itself. It’s really more a kind of shift rather than a gain,” he says. “But if people get in the habit of reading the paper online, they will pay.”

Wes Maurer, the owner of the St. Ignace News and Town Crier on Mackinac Island, runs a nimble, sophisticated website. The weekly St. Ignace News has 3,500 paid circulation and about 350 digital-only subscribers. He would be happy to move it all online, but the majority of his subscribers are over 50 and still like the print product.

“If we wean people off print, we save overhead in printing and postages costs. Other than health care for my employees, those are our biggest costs,” he says.

He has tried various versions of a paywall—charging for the current edition but not the archives, digital-only subscriptions, combined digital and print. He’s also working on allowing tourists in local hotels to scan a QR code in the lobby and get free access to his paper. His newsstand sales have plummeted, because people don’t buy papers like they once did. They just turn to their smartphones for information about the area.

Maurer does not charge his advertisers for online ads. The paper appears on the website as a PDF and viewers can click on the ads and some stories he “gives away for free.” Selected stories related to the COVID-19 pandemic—public health info or changes in community events—have been free since March. Several UP papers have noticed an uptick in sales and visits to their websites in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

“If people get accustomed to seeing that we put out a good product, then when they come to that paywall, we hope they take out a subscription,” he says. “We have always concentrated on quality rather than profit. It works.”

It means paying close attention to your readership and understanding the community.  A weekly paper like the St. Ignace News represents and reflects the mores and norms of the community, he says.

“You can say we serve the status quo,” he quips. “But sometimes, we do try to lead out of our provincialism and insular nature, but we always do it carefully and with a lot of empathy. If you don’t, readers will just shut you off.

“We educate the community and we reflect the community. That’s our mission.” 

Because the paper is family owned, it doesn’t have to answer to distant corporate owners and stockholders. Newspapers are often losing in the media battle because the focus is on maintaining profit margins versus investing in the product—and that begins with not covering their communities with good journalism, he says.

“I have no sympathy for these corporations that do nothing to improve their news product,” he says. “We enjoy a certain amount of loyalty. We try to be professional. We don’t editorialize. We hire serious people.” 

In the UP, weeklies have maintained their niche in Newberry, L’Anse, Bay Mills, Manistique and Ontonagon, often by existing at the edge of the dailies’ coverage areas and concentrating on their community—what’s known in the business as being “hyperlocal.” Many also maintain commercial printing businesses on the side.

The Ontonagon Herald has been published since 1881. Ontonagon, the town and the county, have had a tough time with the closure of the White Pine Copper mine, a paper mill, and several businesses. The paper’s coverage area has lost 6,000 people and the paper, not surprisingly, has lost advertising and subscriptions. Yet it musters on. 

“Hopefully we are at the bottom,” says Maureen Guzek, publisher and editor-in-chief, who bought the paper in 1990. 

The Herald prints 2,500 copies of the newspaper, but also has a substantial number of digital subscribers, says Guzek.

“More people are doing that and it’s been quite successful. They don’t have to wait for the mail and they get it in their hands Monday night,” she says.

Digital subscribers don’t receive the advertising circulars but many of those subscribers don’t live in the UP anyway. They have moved away but take the paper to keep up on the news.

“It gives them a little piece of home,” she says. 

And that may be the ultimate reason newspapers survive in the Upper Peninsula, says David Karnosky at The Daily Mining Gazette. In a rural area where life does not move so fast, there is still a place for newspapers, he says. No one else covers their town nor cares about its future like the local newspaper and its employees. 

“No one else is telling those stories and so people are turning to us. We need to do a good job for them.”

 

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Jon Barthel as senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. The corrected name is Michael Barthel.

James McCommons

James H. McCommons is a professor of journalism at Northern Michigan University. He is the author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (2009) and Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography (2019) He has worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines in Michigan, Wyoming, New York, and Pennsylvania.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar Paul A.Sturgul on July 20, 2020 at 7:31 am

    An Upper Peninsula wide Sunday newspaper existed in the 1980s, out of Escanaba. It was published by a South African magnate.

    • Avatar James McCommons on July 20, 2020 at 6:20 pm

      The Sunday paper was produced for a time as a cooperative effort between the four newspapers in Iron Mountain, Escanaba, Marquette, and Houghton, which at that time were owned by John McGoff who started the newspaper chain Panax. Although McGoff had sympathies for the South Africa apartheid regime, he was an American with media roots and properties in Michigan. He got into trouble with the federal government for his lobbying efforts for South Africa and some questionable loans from the regime. He eventually sold the U.P. papers to a Canadian chain, Thomson. After more than two decades of ownership, Thomson sold the UP properties to Ogden Newspapers in West Virginia.

  2. Avatar Nancy Barr on July 20, 2020 at 8:18 am

    Well-researched article! I’m impressed by the content in Rural Insights, especially pieces such as this one that get at the heart of issues in the U.P.

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