In the immediate aftermath of 2016 election there were calls for people to increase their civic understanding, and in particular funnel money into local news. In the years that have followed we’ve seen stories highlighting the decline of local news that have left towns without anyone regularly covering the boring but important events of school boards, town councils, and zoning boards. Local events truly do need good journalists working to document them and those journalists need our support on a regular basis, whether we agree with the events going on or not.
The Tulsa World has good journalists doing a lot of that work, but I canceled by subscription yesterday after being a subscriber essentially since the day I started college in 2007. After years of feeling guilt about even thinking about not having a daily paper delivered, I ultimately could not bring myself to continue watching the paper die. Most of the time I’m fine with being a newspaper dead-ender, supporting it until it dies, but I want to see my support in action. But this week the Tulsa World let me know they were again raising rates, to over $51 dollars a month – 600 plus a year, and I simply could not do it anymore. The Tulsa World had local news, but it is not local news. For most of this decade the World has been owned by outside interests, first Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and now by Lee Enterprises, which is headquartered in Davenport, Iowa. In the past few years the World has truly embodied the strip-mining approach Jack Shafer talked about last year:
But when you pay for a newspaper, you’re also making a decision to send money to whoever owns it. And if you really care about local news, you might want to think twice about continuing your subscription to one of the 50-plus dailies operated by Alden Global Capital under the Digital First Media nameplate in Denver, Detroit, Long Beach, San Jose, Boston, St. Paul, and other smaller cities. Good journalism still gets done at these newspapers because reporters care. But less and less of it gets printed, because Alden owner Randall Smith and his right-hand man, Heath Freeman, don’t care about the news. As newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor has amply documented, Alden is cannibalizing its papers for profit in a way that should repel subscribers.
Every few months the paper seems to shrink. First the World consolidated sections, adding the opinion or money sections into the main A section. Then it merged the classifieds with the Sports section. Once you strip the ads out of the Sunday paper it’s many times the same size as the Monday paper used to be a decade ago. In the past the A section on Sunday was always big enough to necessitate a supplemental section, usually comprised of national news and less pressing stories (science, human interest, etc.). I do not know the last time the World printed a supplemental A section in a Sunday paper. In part I do not know because I’ve increasingly stopped reading it. There are months on end where papers accumulate on my porch and I pick them up a few days later and dump them in the recycling bin. I’ve missed important stories, but at the same time the paper is dominated by re-printed AP and wire service stories rather than local issues that used to populate the entire front page.
Rather than just say that, I decided to use my last edition of the World to see specifics on what they’re offering for $600 a year. This Sunday’s edition had 6 separate sections providing a total of 46 pages. In total there were 48 full articles or columns. Of that number the World only published 27 locally bylined articles or columns written by 16 different local writers. That means roughly 60% of the paper was local, the rest was wire service news. Most strikingly, the main A section of the paper only included 3 locally bylined stories, two of which were on the front page. So I ask again, where is the money going? It certainly doesn’t look like it’s going into local news.
The sales representative who encouraged me to stay after three hours on hold chalked the rising costs up to the economics of producing the paper and at-home delivery. She didn’t even try to promote local journalism. This wasn’t surprising not only because of what’s in the paper, but previous rate increase letters haven’t talked about local issues either. While the World’s letter this week talked about coverage of local schools, businesses, and public safety, previous letters have explained I benefited from the paper’s Bingo game and other non-journalism endeavors. I’m also sending money to a media company in Iowa that has only continued to strip the paper of stories and reporting, so how much of the money is staying in Tulsa and how much is flooding into Davenport, Iowa to support things that don’t benefit the community the World serves? I couldn’t answer these and the representative didn’t even really try, just offering me a discount rate that was still five dollars higher than my previous rate and offering to get approval to lock in my current rate. She gave me the statistics on daily cost but she never once talked about local benefits.
Local news is important, however, and I am not giving up on it. Without the World subscription hanging over my bank account each month I can actually support local news. I’ve set up a donation to The Frontier, a local non-profit run by the former owner of the World. I also plan to donate organizations like Oklahoma Watch, and local NPR stations that produce journalism such as StateImpact OK. It’s a lot easier to see where my money is going with all of these organizations unlike the World. In an ideal society the Tulsa World would work to win back former subscribers by enhancing their product, but I have no hope that this will come to be, because at the end of the day profit is the biggest issue and it’s much easier to cut down something than build it up. I just couldn’t stand to watch an old friend whither away anymore.
Update, July 2021
The World has called me a few times since I cancelled and sent me a few mailings offering me deals to return. The most recent one offered me a deal for Wednesday & Sunday home delivery plus online access. I discarded it but noticed the return address was a P.O. Box in Virginia. Local news indeed.
I’d love to provide a comparison either to statistics when I subscribed back in 2007 or even when Lee Enterprises purchased the paper but the electronic version that would allow easy counting only goes back a few weeks on the World’s website. Furthermore this Sunday’s edition was a good one to consider as two of the state’s three college football teams played each other, meaning the World would produce the Gameday section supplemental to the Sports section.
The total for bylined stories was 56% percent. For consistency I did not count un-bylined stories or features that combined multiple smaller stories (around the nation features, etc.). Some of these (local high school sports information) were locally produced, so I generously rounded up. A vast majority of those items excluded were collections of wire service reporting.