What If Newspapers Had Prevented Printing?

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher
Swift County Monitor-News

When the 2019 planting season was getting underway the rains wouldn’t stop. Falling on already saturated ground, the incessant rains flooded fields. Farmers couldn’t till the land much less plant seed.

Not growing a crop didn’t mean they weren’t going to get paid. Through the USDA’s Prevented Planting program, farmers received compensation for those unplanted acres.

Community newspapers are in a devastating drought, one so severe it is forcing publishers off the nation’s landscape leaving rural communities a barren information wasteland. We believe there is a solution to help America’s community newspapers based on this USDA program that could be administered through the department’s rural development division. We’d call it a “Prevented Printing” program. First let’s look why such a program is crucial today.

A King of the Hill world

What we know about this Internet Age is that it is one, global, King of the Hill competition. Google and Facebook don’t just dominate in the big cities; they dominate in small communities across America and around the world. There is one Facebook, one Google, one YouTube, and one Twitter.

In the first quarter of 2020, Google earned $41.2 billion in revenues and a $6.9 billion net profit. Apple’s second quarter profits were $11.2 billion on $58.3 billion in revenue. They consume over 60 percent of all digital advertising dollars.

Meanwhile, in the 15 years from 2004 to 2019, America lost more than 2,000 newspapers. Many of those lost newspapers were in small towns.

As of this past spring, 198 of the more than 3,142 counties in the United States no longer had a newspaper. We can easily see this news desert expanding into the counties of 7th Congressional District.

The consequences for democracy and community

What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote. Citizens don’t understand why the school district cut course offerings in foreign languages, music, and math. Citizens know little about who is running for office. They don’t know the details of why the county is bonding and raising taxes by $30 million. Without a newspaper, the cost of issuing those bonds goes up because investors recognize a greater opportunity for malfeasance. Fewer people run for office. We lose the stories that create a common bond to get things done.

The ability to hold powerful appointed and elected public officials accountable is lost when the newspaper goes away. Newspapers have authority for five basic reasons: our reach in a community ensures everyone knows what their government officials are up to; our financial strength gives them the ability to challenge government power; we’re always on duty showing up day after day; our knowledge of the laws that guarantee citizen rights ensures transparency and accountability; and we are the most trusted source of news about our communities.

At the vast majority of public meetings we cover, we are the only citizen in the room. We represent the people of our community. We are their watchdog.

No alternatives, no substitutes

What we have learned from more than 20 years with the internet is that for most community newspapers its promise was a mirage. For most small-town newspapers, digital payments represent 0 to 5 percent of their income.

Much of rural America isn’t media rich. If there are radio stations, they often get their news from the local newspaper. There are no television stations that cover local news; no internet news companies. There is only the community newspaper for reliable coverage of the news – unless you believe the bitter debates, conjecture and outright misinformation on Facebook and other social media count as news.

We don’t have the population to sustain us on the internet. It takes hundreds of thousands to millions of hits to generate sustainable digital income.

Prevented printing payments

When 2020 got underway, community newspapers were facing a deepening drought in advertising revenues. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. As businesses were forced to close, or remained open but with greatly reduced revenues, their advertising budgets dried up. For newspapers the drought became life-threatening. Not all have survived; and more will certainly succumb unless our nation’s leaders recognize an informed electorate is essential to good government.

Many plans have been proposed to save newspapers. So far, all are geared toward large circulation newspapers leaving small town community newspapers, especially those in rural America, with no support. That is why we find inspiration in modeling a program to help out small town newspapers on the prevented planting farm program.

A prevented printing program is easily scaled to each individual newspaper, representing its unique rates and the extent of its lost advertising. If a newspaper printed an average of 24 pages a week over the past five years, but it is now down to 20, that is a loss of four pages a week or 208 pages for the year. Based on the rate card advertising charge, and a half page of advertising per page, this sample newspaper lost $500 per page in revenue, or $104,000.

We would also include our lost subscriptions sales as our older readers die off and younger readers turn to the internet for sports, entertainment, social connection and the latest sensationalized story. They know little about their own communities.

Payment would not come without obligation. We would have to publish the number of pages we are getting paid for to provide the reporting and information to our citizens. This would mean more job security for our employees, more payroll taxes paid, payments to our printing plants, to the U.S. Postal Service and a more informed community. With the funds we received to support our circulation, we would provide free subscriptions to citizens.

If the economy came roaring back and we had enough advertising to go 24 pages on our own again, we wouldn’t get a payment.

A far-fetched plan? We don’t think so. We believe it creates a sound base to keep community newspapers alive and rural communities served with the knowledge citizens in a representative democracy require.

To pay for the program, it wouldn’t be necessary to raise all the funds from taxpayers. A fee could be imposed on tech giants Google and Facebook to create a superfund to help pay for the prevented printing program. “This is not punishing success, but rightly seeking compensation for content that online giants transmit and profit from. Google alone made $4.7 billion off of news stories it displayed via search and Google News in 2018,” a Seattle Times editorial said. Most of those stories were pirated from newspapers.

Eligibility to the program would be limited to family-owned publications, non-profits, and foundations. No newspaper owned by a hedge fund need apply. This restriction would create incentive for the newspaper to be returned from Wall Street to main street.

In 2018-2019, the Trump administration approved $28 billion in USDA payments to farmers to offset the effects of the trade war with China. Thousands of farmers got more than $100,000 each, according to an NPR analysis of USDA records. More than $105 billion of the 2018 five-year farm bill was earmarked for programs for farmers – the tariff aid payments came on top of this.

The aid a single farmer receives annually would save a community newspaper. Is one community newspaper, the essential source of information for small town American citizens, any less vital to the future of this country than one farmer?

Our farmers feed America and the world. Our newspapers nourish citizen knowledge essential for their participation in a representative democracy. If community newspapers go away, local governments will become bureaucratic fiefdoms insulated from public knowledge and accountability, and Democracy starves.

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