Letter From The Editor: Tough times in the media world

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Dear Readers,

I probably don’t have to tell you what a challenging time it is for us in the small-time, local media.

The old advertising model is broken, a new one hasn’t really replaced it and readers like you increasingly don’t want to have to pay for content.

It’s that vise that has seen our readership hold steady, yet revenue decline for three straight years.

This past week, I had to let our staff know that we were cutting editorial expense in half — not something I wanted to do, but something driven by losing advertisers. I’ll note these advertisers weren’t picking on us — they were pulling out of all local media.

Over the last few years, I’ve had to cut back on coverage and content for these sites as revenue dropped — the bottom line is, well, the bottom line: if the money doesn’t come in, it can’t go out to pay writers and reporters. Forget about paying me – that’s been off the table since last summer.

If it was just us, I’d say I’m a lousy businessman (which is true to some extent — I’m a journalist by training and experience, not a finance or sales whiz). But it’s not just us. Everyone in this space is struggling.

Two big issues have hamstrung those of us trying to make it in the digital domain: Google and Facebook.

The two companies have about 80% of the digital ad marketing share — some say it’s even higher — and have driven pricing down, arguably to corner the market and drive out competition. National Web ad networks that thrived a decade ago are either gone — or have been bought up by one of the two.

Google hurts local publishers by offering targeted ads — which increasingly have become a privacy concern, and local search — if they decide to, they can severely cut page views by limiting how we search. They are also able to excerpt our content without any revenue sharing. Worse for local advertisers, your ads can appear anywhere — even on unseemly sites or “fake news” sites that continue to propagate, a number of which are funded and supported by hostile foreign governments. Let’s not forget that those ads, even ones on wholesome sites, can be — and are — blocked by a lot of users; a couple of new Web browsers do it automatically.

Our ads don’t track readers — ever — and run 24/7 and cannot be blocked. But most local businesses are too busy running their business to ever get down into the weeds of such things and find Google and Facebook the easiest solution, which I completely understand.

Facebook used to be a reasonable partner and helped spark much of our growth between 2010 and 2016. Then “Fake News” happened and the company panicked. Unable — or unwilling — to employ enough people to help sort the good sites — local news sites reporting on new paving projects or new education plans in our local schools — from the bad sites, those spreading false rumors about dark conspiracies — they basically just shut everyone down from non-major media outlets. Think about what you see — and don’t see —  in your newsfeed these days.

On a major news story, we used to be able to get nearly 10,000 Facebook views and shares — and the resulting page view boost (not to mention first time readers who came and saw a useful site and kept coming back). Now, we’re lucky to get a few hundred.

But that’s the world we live in.

Understand, I’m not whining or complaining — I chose to do this. But I did want you, the readers, to understand why in the future I might choose not to do this any longer.

With my kids growing up — they start their senior year in high school this fall — I’m contemplating returning to writing for wider audiences (maybe back in the consumer tech area, maybe not) about subjects that could require far-flung and frequent travel. Additionally, we have a nicely growing real estate rental/marketing business on the Texas coast. Plus, like every other writer I know, I have a novel in the works — not surprisingly set in a certain county in southeast Pennsylvania.

That means I need to see if The Times, as currently published, makes sense for me any more.

With revenue dropping and coverage being shrunk, I’m not happy with the product we’re able to put out, nor the amount of time spent and grief it generates. Increasingly, it is getting all but impossible to find people willing to sit through three-hour public meetings and generate stories for what I can afford to pay — and I don’t blame them, having done so myself for many years. It is a thankless, often tedious job.

Going forward, I see three options as of January, 2019, starting with the least likely:

  1. If there is a spike in revenue, we will restore coverage and continue on.

2.  The Times converts to a “shopper” style, running only submitted content, columns and such, maintained by a minimal amount of advertising. No hard news, no crime, no politics, but no controversy, nothing edgy.

3.  We cover the heck out of local news, the 2018 election and high school football throughout this fall, offer a toast to the future and our great readers and head off into the sunset on Jan. 1, 2019, either by closure or sale of assets.

I don’t do this to threaten — that would be both foolish and disrespectful — but just to share my thinking. As folks who have supported this site for nearly eight years, I think you deserve to know what the future holds.

As for this summer — we’re cooling it (many of you are away, anyhow) and easing off local news and politics (I think all of us could use a break on the latter until Labor Day).

Also, I think this needs to be part of a bigger conversation. Even if we don’t survive, it is crucial for local media to exist. Without independent coverage, you allow local governments and school districts to spin whatever story they wish to tell, with no check on their actions. Without a media watchdog, you will see local, school and county taxes rise — when no one watches the fox in the henhouse, you know what happens.

Maybe it is fashionable to beat up on the media right now. And while I understand the temptation — parts of the national media certainly warrants some degree of scorn — most local media are dedicated, underpaid, overworked people who keep doing it because of a deep desire to inform and educate their fellow citizens.

It is a calling, one that the fewer and fewer are willing to embrace.

Without a way to support those dedicated individuals, we will live in a poorer, less informed world. Your suggestions and ideas on how to help will be appreciated.

Thanks for your support and readership,

Mike

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One Comment

  1. VR says:

    I value your work. Thank you for your dedication through the years to the local community.
    I am willing to make a small monthly contribution to the site. I will call this my “bottle of wine” sacrifice, like the monthly “latte sacrifice” I make for WHYY.
    Would others like to pitch in with a dollar amount per month? Let’s do this, folks.
    Mike, do you have a way to receive recurring contributions? What amount is your tipping point on stay/don’t stay?

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