On May 1, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed Law Day to be celebrated on May 1 of each year. The American Bar Association chooses a theme to highlight an important issue in our legal system. This year’s Law Day theme is Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society. Co-Founder of the Hernando Sun, Rocco Maglio was asked to be the keynote speaker of the Law Day Dinner at the Hernando County Bar Association. These are some of the ideas that he spoke about.
What does a free press mean? Definitions are hard. Is the press free to slant their coverage, however they want or should they be required to fairly cover the news? Who decides what is fair coverage? Is a Free Press required to cover the full story or is it acceptable to only cover a portion of a story that supports the narrative about the larger picture of what is happening? Who decides what constitutes full coverage of a story? The answer to the question of who decides if the press is covering the news fairly could be government regulators, but then it becomes difficult to argue that you have a Free Press. If the answer is the free market, then a major concern is the media consolidation that has been taking place as well as the reliance of many newspapers on a few wire sources for much of their content. If the press is controlled by a few people, can it really be considered free.
If you are wondering if there are people starting newspapers in the United States, the answer is that this is pretty rare. Your Hernando Sun, a small family owned newspaper which started in 2014 was featured in an article in the Tokyo Shimbun. The Tokyo Shimbun is a large Japanese newspaper with a circulation of three million readers. The Tokyo Shimbun was launching a series on the declining independent newspapers in the United States and was looking for an independent newspaper that recently started. They searched online for a recently opened independent newspaper and found the Hernando Sun. They flew a reporter and interpreter down from their New York Bureau to interview the Hernando Sun founders.
One of the reasons that the Hernando County newspaper was interesting to the Tokyo Shimbun is that this area is considered a news desert, because of the scarcity of local reporting. The University of North Carolina – Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media declared Hernando County a news desert after analysing the local reporting available in the area.
It has been a tough time for newspapers in the past few decades. The disruption that was wrought by the Internet has drastically changed the landscape. It appears to be getting more difficult as even more newspapers are closing or being purchased by large newspaper chains. Many of the newspapers greatly reduced staff and local content when they are purchased. The local content is then supplemented with national or regional stories often times from a news service.
Craigslist and other sites ended the monopoly that newspapers had on classified ads. Google and other Internet providers have kept the value of online ads very low while not differentiating between ads on different types of sites. Print advertising has fallen out of favor with marketing experts and their advice is to avoid print advertising while suggesting ways of getting your local newspaper to write articles highlighting your business.
A random examination of newspaper content by Duke examined 16,000 news stories from 100 randomly selected communities during one week. The researchers found more than half of the stories were not locally produced. Only 17% of the stories were about the local community or events.
There was not one, but a confluence of events that led to the decline of newspapers. One of the causes was the Internet democratized information by making it much easier to publish to a wider audience. Television and radio made people feel that they were aware of what was going on and many people simply stopped following local news. The newspapers responded by reducing local reporting to save money and therefore made their offerings less compelling.
Of the newspaper’s remaining revenue sources there are currently only ads, subscriptions, newspaper sales and legal notices. Of these revenue sources legal notices are often the subject of legislative action to remove the requirement to publish notices in newspapers, but so far none of these changes have passed. Currently, Florida Law requires that a newspaper to have printed for at least a year before it can carry public notices as well as meeting a number of other criteria. The Hernando Sun obtains 12-15% of our revenue from legal notices. Some of the newspapers have started to diversify their revenue sources by adding additional services including marketing, Information Technology, investing, among others.
Newspapers can be vitally important to a community. According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) newspapers usually provide the most in depth government watchdog reporting. The newspaper coverage is an important part of meeting Critical Information Needs. The FCC splits Critical Information Needs into the eight categories below.
1. emergencies and risks, both immediate and long term;
2. health and welfare, including specifically local health information as well as group specific health information where it exists;
3. education, including the quality of local schools and choices available to parents;
4. transportation, including available alternatives, costs, and schedules;
5. economic opportunities, including job information, job training, and small business assistance;
6. the environment, including air and water quality and access to recreation;
7. civic information, including the availability of civic institutions and opportunities to associate with others;
8. political information, including information about candidates at all relevant levels of local governance, and about relevant public policy initiatives affecting communities and neighborhoods
Once the disruption of the newspaper industry has quieted a bit, the industry will look vastly different. Many of the local newspapers will have been consolidated under large media groups backed by private equity. Other newspapers will have simply closed their doors like the Hernando Today and the Tampa Tribune.
As local search continues to become more important, local content is becoming paramount. How does Google determine which websites are shown first in a local search? Google looks for local authorities to see which sites the authorities are linking to, because local authorities know their area. Google considers sites with high quality local content to be local authorities. Google cannot know every area, so they look to authoritative sites to inform them which local sites are important locally. Newspapers have high quality local content and are often integrated by Google to provide a guide of which sites are important locally. Newspapers can assist customers, businesses, and even Google in finding what they are looking for, because newspapers know their local area. Through this newfound purpose, local newspapers will have the opportunity to grow revenue streams, assisting them in maintaining healthy coverage of local areas.