I had a paper route when I was a boy. I rose early on weekends, stuffed a bag full of newspapers, threw it over my head, and set out to deliver the news to my customers. I enjoyed delivering papers, but I didn’t care for the collection process. It was daunting to collect fees from some customers. I remember how difficult it was to be a youngster in the role of a collection agent.
Some customers were rude and didn’t care to pay; others were kind, yet poor.
A lot has changed in 50 years.
I keep a mint condition 1936 Underwood manual typewriter in the office where I write the column. It serves as a reminder of journalism yesteryears.
The business of spreading the news was pretty much a monopoly for newspapers for quite some time, but the advent of the Internet, cable news, and smart phones then introduced competition and it put a squeeze on newspapers.
To say newspapers have to do everything they can to retain their audience would be an understatement.
I was in a neighboring town not long ago, one who’s newspaper publishes my column, and I began to ask strangers if they took the town’s paper. Much to my surprise, out of the hundreds I asked, I found that only roughly 20 percent of them took the paper.
I found that astonishing and wanted to dig for some reasons as to why so I set out to do a bit of investigative journalism.
I began my study by analyzing two Central Indiana newspapers, one large and one small. One began publication in 1891 and its circulation size is around 5,000. The second began publication in 1903. Its circulation size is around 155,000 daily and 285,000 on Sundays.
Our household reads two or three newspapers a day, but we subscribe to none. Instead, we buy from a newsstand.
Sometime back, I had a conversation with the publisher of that small newspaper and asked her a few pointed questions. I asked why her publication ceased operations on Mondays. She never alluded to it being a cost-cutting move, yet insisted it was at full staff. When I asked for an explanation as to why many of its readers have complained the newspaper is “skimpy,” often only two pages unfolded, she said it’s average size. I then asked her to explain why so many readers complain about the liberal content of her publication. She saw no evidence of that. I also asked if there was any truth to the rumor her paper was going to go strictly online and cease print operations as other newspapers across America have. She claimed it was merely a rumor.
The marketing slogan is: “Something for everyone.”
Our household recently severed ties with that large newspaper by canceling our subscription and my email to them read: “Your customer service in the Jamestown area is awful. In the last three months, our paper has been in the cornfield twice, in a mud puddle two or three, but it gets better. Our paper didn’t come until 1 p.m. We would like the Sunday paper in the morning, not afternoon. When it didn’t come we drove 2.5 miles to get one. There were none. Two weeks ago the same thing happened. Workers at the market say people complain about that all the time. We then drove to Crawfordsville to get a paper, 15 miles away. It had one left. We were then charged $3 for a single paper. We’re of the opinion it’s not worth that.”
The senior distribution director of that paper later wrote: “Our delivery operation has experienced an overwhelmingly high carrier turnover rate this winter and Jamestown is no exception. The issue is a combination of production problems on our part accompanied by new carriers.”
To explain why newspapers are in decline one could say it’s a departure from the guiding principles of old. Many could say it’s an agenda push, not a newsgathering venture anymore. Is it of value to the reader; will they take the time to read it? Content has a lot to do with reader interest and newspapers have to do everything they can to satisfy their customers and stay ahead of the competition — but, quite often they aren’t.
• Greg Allen’s column, Thinkin’ Out Loud, is published bi-monthly. He’s an author, nationally syndicated columnist and the founder of Builder of the Spirit in Jamestown, Ind., a nonprofit organization aiding the poor. Reach him at www.builderofthespirit.org or follow him on Twitter @GregAllencolumn.
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