by Bill Holmes
I've subscribed to the local paper or papers wherever I've lived for most of my life. My parents subscribed to the morning and afternoon papers, remember those, when I was growing up. So you might say I was a dedicated consumer of newspapers. I usually at least looked at every page except classifieds and advertisement inserts. I read most of the sports, front and local sections. I used the coupons in the Sunday paper. The paper was part of my daily life and routine. I even went on a job interview once at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That changed for a couple of reasons in October or November of 2012. One reason is that my subscription ran out and I had forgotten to renew it. One morning there was a bill for one month in the newspaper at my front door. They had delivered the paper for a month after my subscription expired. There was no phone call from the Star-Telegram sales and circulation department or local carrier to ask about renewing. I was debating with myself whether to renew for another year, six months, go month to month or do an electronic subscription. I was also trying to decide whether to continue seven day a week delivery or some lesser schedule. Because I was still undecided, I just paid the bill and figured in a month I'd get another one. Well, a couple of mornings later there was no paper at the door. Again, no follow up from the Star-Telegram. I figured if they really didn't want me as a customer, I could live without them and so I did.
There were other reasons I decided to not renew my subscription or why I was even contemplating it. One was price. Every year there was a price increase, sometimes substantial. That would have been palatable except that the product kept getting smaller and worse at the same time. This was a double whammy, pay more for less. They combined sections, eliminated features, changed the layout, laid off reporters and columnists or didn't replace them when they left and apparently got rid of every proof reader. They also must have forgotten to renew the license for the spell check and grammar check software. Some of the weekday editions were the size of the paper in a small town like Mayberry, not the sixteenth largest US city which is part of the sixth largest metropolitan area (D/FW) in the country. Just as egregious is that every change or downsize was explained as a benefit to the reader. Less coverage was promoted at sleek and more efficient. Dropped features were explained away as outdated or no longer popular although several were brought back because there were so many complaints. I never did see an explanation for the errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, facts or layout. The "continued on page 9" at the bottom of a story often meant "continued in the vicinity of page 9, maybe".
A second reason was it has become much easier to get the same information through other avenues, particularly the internet. Between TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, RSS feeds, websites, apps and email you can find news and information about almost anything. The question is how do you aggregate and consume that information and are you going to pay for it. Many of the major newspapers have an electronic edition that is the image of the printed paper including advertisements. That edition usually comes with a price. In the Star-Telegram's case a digital subscription is about a third the cost of the paper edition. Most newspapers also have free websites that may have fewer articles, maybe just headlines and summaries, limit the number of articles you can read in a time period or they delay some articles and columns a day or two. I was already getting much of my news and information from other sources before I dropped the newspaper. Since then, I've found ways to replace all the newspaper content that I am interested in. It took a little effort at first but now it's pretty automatic and more current. I don't have to wait until tomorrow morning to read about something that happened at noon today. I get more in-depth information now if I want it via hyperlinks. I get more diverse slants on the issues. Very importantly, I get more comics that I chose and they are in color every day, not just on Sundays.
All this added up to my decision to live without the daily printed newspaper. The indifference of the Star-Telegram cemented that decision. If the paper had called me back in September or October I probably would have renewed. If they had offered a better deal I might have stayed. If they had kept delivering the paper I might still be paying month to month. If they had developed their digital editions for Android as well as the iOS version I might have converted to that form of delivery. They didn't do any of that. It's interesting, the guy who stopped by the other day offered me a subscription for half price. I don't know the length of that deal, I didn't ask. It's too late now. He never even mentioned the electronic edition as another cheaper option.
Some of what I've written is specific to my situation and one particular newspaper. I fear though that much of it applies to many other newspapers. I think we need the information local newspapers provide but no longer need the once a day printed delivery method. Somebody needs to cover city hall and the school board and all the other local stories and issues. Coverage by professional reporters with editors, not amateurs with a cell phone a Twitter account and a blog. TV doesn't have the time or inclination to follow a story long term or in-depth. Most newspapers didn't adjust very well to the internet age. They ignored it or were slow to adapt. Many of their first attempts were weak. They couldn't decide between giving their content away for free or charging for it on the web. They didn't know how or how much to charge advertisers. Once they gave content away it was very hard to begin charging for it. The same for very low advertising rates. I think most realize that they are in a fight for there life now, they're just not sure how to stop the bleeding. There are now better newspaper websites and electronic editions. There is better use of social media. Very few have come up with the right business model or the right mix of print and electronic. Are all these efforts too little too late? The golden age of newspapers has past. Will they ever get the younger generations to be customers? They've lost too much influence. An endorsement of a political candidate doesn't mean much these days and certainly can't guarantee election like it once did. Will they be able to survive as smaller and less influential entities? There are no longer many metropolitan afternoon papers. There are very few cities with multiple papers. Many newspapers have folded. I feel sorry for all the reporters, columnists and other employees who have lost their jobs. They are paying for poor management across the industry.
If the newspaper industry lost me as a customer can they survive. Not that I'm important but my demographics are as an older (OK, old), educated, curious, long time and dedicated reader. One in the habit of starting and/or ending the day with a newspaper. I've changed my habits. I don't miss the printed version. After over 40 years of reading a printed newspaper almost daily I no longer do. A bonus is that I no longer have newsprint on my hands, clothes, the refrigerator door or anyplace else. I can also read my tablet in the dark.
One more thing, we need a new name if newspapers don't come in paper form.