Future of Newspapers Part 1: The Problem

Six more local newspapers in Virginia will vastly reduce their print publication next week, continuing a nationwide trend in which local newspapers are shuttering or greatly reducing their scope. All of these newspapers, owned by Lee Enterprises, produced a print edition at least five times per week, with four of them producing a newspaper every day.

In this area, the last decade has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of local and regional papers, impacting newspapers in Herndon, Reston, Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Manassas. 

Now, as of June 27, The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, The Danville Register & Bee, The (Waynesboro) News Virginian, The Bristol Herald Courier, The (Culpepper) Star-Exponent and The Martinsville Bulletin will limit the publication of print editions to Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Despite changes in the print schedule, their online content will remain largely unchanged.

Those newspapers in Virginia continued a nationwide trend in which local newspapers are shuttering or greatly reducing their scope.

Nationally, Lee Enterprises is expected to cut more than 400 jobs across 19 local newspapers by the end of 2023, according to an Axios report. That would account for as much of 10 percent of Lee’s total staff.

Lee owns roughly 75 daily and 350 weekly newspapers, spanning across 77 markets and 26 states. 

“The new three-day print frequency certainly represents a shift in your newspaper experience,” said a statement in all six newspapers that ran in late May. “But fewer days of print doesn’t mean less of the important, impactful local coverage that you’ve come to expect from us.”

Representatives for The News Virginian and Daily Progress declined to comment. Representatives for the other four newspapers did not respond to requests for comment as of publication. Lee Enterprises did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the Local News Initiative associated with the journalism school at Northwestern University, over 2,500 newspapers have disappeared in the United States since 2005, more than one-quarter of printed publications. During the pandemic, more than 360 newspapers closed their doors. As of June 2022, there are 6,380 newspapers in the country, 1,230 are daily and 5,150 are weekly.

The same report, titled “The State of Local News,” showed that more than a fifth of Americans live in “news deserts,” areas where there is little access to local news, or areas in danger of turning into news deserts. More than 200 counties across the nation lack a single newspaper, accounting for 70 million people. Another 1,630 counties have only one newspaper. This disproportionately impacts communities where residents are generally older, poorer and receive their – limited –  local news from social media.

The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t help, either. Between late 2019 and May 2022, 360 newspapers went under. 

Those six newspapers are far from the only Virginia newspapers facing this problem. In the Commonwealth, 42 newspapers closed or merged with others, as of September 2022. Many that remained have faced staff cuts.

Tonda Rush, general counsel for the National Newspaper Association, noted that newspapers always relied on print advertising to cover expenditures, as well as subscriptions. So when social media came around and companies began to emphasize digital advertising, newspaper revenue plummeted across the board. Covering costs became even more difficult when the pandemic started.

“The pandemic came and local businesses shut down and they weren’t able to advertise because they weren’t getting customers themselves,” Rush said. “Some of that has bounced back, but it’s been slow.”

Another reason newspapers continue to struggle is, due to the rise in social media, many people expect to receive their news for free. But as Rush said, that doesn’t allow for newspapers to be sustainable businesses.

“Newsrooms are an expense,” Rush said. “They’re not cheap. And we want good reporters, we want eyeballs on local government, we want people to report on the youth sports teams and things like that. And someone has got to be able to pay them.”