Decline Of The Local Media

The article earlier this week made me notice how infrequent I see stories like the ones I quoted in the news today. A little local story of no great note to the world at large but complete with quotes from those involved who cared passionately about it. I searched the more recent DelCo archives available from Furness Library (1994-present), and put together a graph of stories about Nether Providence.

Between 2010 and 2012 there’s a noticeable reduction in the number of articles written about Nether Providence. Searching for other towns like Brookhaven and Aston show similar trends What happened around that time is hard to follow because the ownership of the DelCo Times is a bit murky. But, just prior to this, there was a shift in the newspaper’s format,

Both of these instances provide proof of what we do every day — just how important the newspaper is to the people who read it, and maybe even more important to the people who don’t but should.

Simply put, our mission is to be the newspaper of record for Delaware County. We cover things no one else does, and with the kind of depth you can’t get anywhere else.

And to help us do just that, we’re tinkering with the product just a bit, starting today. Maybe you’ve already noticed.

If the newspaper you are holding in your hands today feels a little different, that is because it is.

We are converting our printing process to a 50-inch Web. What that means for you is that the newspaper is shifting to a little leaner, trimmer version. Each page will be a little bit shorter from top to bottom than what you were reading yesterday.

The years around then were bad ones for the company – likely fallout from the Great Recession. The paper was owned by the Journal Register Company, a media conglomerate. In 2008 JRC was suspended from the stock exchange, in 2009 it filed for bankruptcy. In 2011 it was purchased by Alden Global Capital and at some point JRC became 21st Century Media and then Digital First Media. I guess that didn’t work out well because in 2012, Digital First Media filed for bankruptcy. Somehow it was flogged off to another branch of Alden Global Capital which is based in Colorado, ending local ownership of the paper.

MediaNews Group (another name for Digital First Media), pioneered what’s become standard for papers like the DelCo Times – clustering – importing stories from other local papers owned by the same media group,

Singleton was a pioneer in “clustering”: cutting jobs at individual newspapers and consolidating functions at a hub near a cluster of newspapers. For example, the Alameda Newspaper Group in suburban San Francisco in the mid-1990s had a central newsroom in Pleasanton, California, that did all the copy editing, layout and page makeup for five daily papers. Upon acquiring the diverse group of papers, Singleton consolidated several news sections (such as sports and features) to one local office away from the metropolitan area, having a few reporters do the job of many people.

Singleton soon earned the nickname “Lean Dean” for his slashing of jobs through clustering. His tight-fisted methods were later adopted as the preferred model by Alden Global Capital and other hedge funds that took over near-bankrupt newspaper companies.

NPR did a piece about Alden Global Capital and its impact on local journalism and all the secondary effects caused by that loss. The Atlantic ran an even longer piece about it as well. How profitable is this? Numbers are hard to get as Alden is a secretive hedge fund, but this piece from a foundation associated with Harvard seems the best source.

Today we can reveal some key financial numbers from the very private company that shows just how successful Alden and DFM have been at milking profit out of the newspapers it is slashing to the bone. DFM reported a 17 percent operating margin — well above those of its peers — in its 2017 fiscal year, along with profits of almost $160 million. That’s the fruit of the repeated cutbacks that have left its own shrinking newsrooms in a state of rebellion.

Somewhere in all that turmoil, the DelCo Times lost its way. If anything, the pandemic drove local reporting down further. But, the NPR story above suggested that the collapse of conglomerate-owned newspapers might make space for new local ones. One that I’ve heard of but need to look into further is The Spirit. It claims to be locally owned with a headquarters in Aston (their mailing address is in Glenolden), but information about it seems a bit scarce. Even its own staff pages seem to be empty. It has an eclectic mix of local stories. But they do seem to be genuine local stories of the sort I wrote about before. So, maybe worth a closer look.

One of the challenges is that the DelCo Times – and Philadelphia Inquirer – remain the papers of record. With that comes advertising revenue and places like library keep archives of their back issues. The library maintains historical archives of these papers going back to the 19th century. I inquired about back issues of the Swarthmorean and Spirit. Furness Library has only 2 months of the Swarthmorean and the Swarthmore library has only the last 2 years – neither available digitally. The Furness librarians hadn’t heard of the Spirit. That lack of recognition will be a challenge for the alternative press.

Categories: History