Richard Connor: The future of local news is fragile. Can digital save it?

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I gave a speech to the Colleyville Chamber of Commerce last week on the present state of local news and the outlook for its future.

“Short speech,” I promised at my opening. “I have no idea.”

The crowd laughed, and the laughter was appreciated. It’s difficult to even get a smile these days when talking about the state of media, particularly print media. The statistics are grim. Fewer reporters. Less space for news. Meager local reporting. Bankruptcy is now commonplace among newspapers, some of which have been in business for 100 years and a few long held in the hands of families.

I was asked to speak on the subject because residents of Colleyville, just like folks in hundreds of cities across the country, are concerned about the loss of local and trusted news reporting. They should be.

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In a Dec. 5 column for Bloomberg Opinion, Joe Nocera outlined the barren landscape:

The “death of local news” has become a meme among journalists. According to a study by University of North Carolina researchers, 1 in 4 papers has shut down since 2004. Newspaper employment has been cut in half. Combined weekday circulation has shrunk from 122 million to 73 million. The New York Times ran a series of articles over the summer called “The Last Edition,” which examined “the collapse of local news in America.”

Nocera was writing about his interview with Craig Forman, chief executive officer of The McClatchy Company, a newspaper chain that owns the Fort Worth Star-Telegram among other daily papers around the country. Forman told Nocera he believes the company will be saved by switching its emphasis from print to digital.

McClatchy’s stock price when Nocera talked to Forman was 39 cents per share. The company had debt of $5 billion after it bought out Knight Ridder, the once proud chain that had purchased the Star-Telegram from Disney. McClatchy has paid back all but $700 million of the debt but faces severe financial problems that include its inability to make an impending payment of $124 million to its pension fund.

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Forman’s theory and hope, according to Nocera, is that McClatchy’s new model of a digital business will generate enough digital subscriptions to offset the loss of advertising revenue.

He speaks of the importance of local news but the digital strategy he outlines is dependent on his papers becoming a major player in reporting national stories such as the upcoming presidential primaries and the 2020 general election. The digital news management, he says, will be centralized. That tells me local editors and reporters will have to relinquish control of much of the news in their own newsrooms and communities.

Here’s some of what Nocera wrote:

“It’s not just about putting your content on a website,” Forman told me. “Any digital effort has to be centralized.” A sophisticated digital platform is far too expensive for any one of McClatchy’s papers to do on its own – it has to be done companywide. If done right, it offers data analysis and analytics, targeting of potential customers, site personalization and so on.

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Because McClatchy lacked a robust digital infrastructure during the 2016 election, “we mostly missed the Trump bump,” Forman said. The New York Times and the Washington Post have signed up millions of digital subscribers since the election. McClatchy hasn’t.

“We have newspapers in much of purple America,” Forman said, pointing to states such as Florida and Georgia where Democrats suddenly have at least a fighting chance. “That’s where the 2020 election is going to be decided.” This time, he wants McClatchy to be ready to offer digitized political news to a national audience hungry to consume it.

There are many problems with this strategy, in my opinion. In the digital world, for starters, a media outlet must have a huge online audience to succeed. The New York Times and the Washington Post have those numbers. McClatchy does not.

More from Nocera:

So far, McClatchy has 200,000 digital subscribers and nearly 500,000 “paid digital relationships,” which include print subscribers who have activated their digital accounts. This year, for the first time, its revenue is split 50-50 between subscriptions and advertising. But given that the chain’s total circulation is close to 1 million (1.3 million on Sundays), it has a long way to go.

What McClatchy apparently hopes to do is aggregate and centralize the numbers from its many newspapers to make one “digital impression,” as if you can put thousands of gray mice in a bag, shake it up, and come out with a big, gray elephant.

In this case the sum of the parts will not make the whole.

I have digital subscriptions to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and I read those papers almost exclusively online, except on Sunday when I clutch The New York Times under my arm like a running back protecting a football from ferocious linemen trying to strip it from my grasp.

But my digital subscriptions are with nationally recognized and trusted media. McClatchy has many papers across the country but they are small and need to be local relative to the national giants. I do not look to the Star-Telegram for insightful reporting on the presidential election.

And I will not pay for digital anywhere else. Paywalls keeping you from content do not work. I can usually find any story I want just by clicking my browser and doing a search.

I’ve said it before. I am rooting for the Star-Telegram, but given McClatchy’s financial woes and now this national digital strategy, I am pessimistic about the paper’s future.

What people in Fort Worth and Colleyville and all of Tarrant County want is a trusted, local newspaper that tells them stories about their communities and acts as a watchdog on government. You can’t aggregate that and you can’t direct that kind of news coverage from a corporate office hundreds or thousands of miles from City Hall.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at