The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Newspapers keep eliminating print days. They say it’s for the best.

Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, is cutting back on printed papers and pointing readers to e-editions

The Beacon Journal's building in Akron, Ohio. (Akron Beacon Journal)
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When she was a child, Sandy Auburn’s father read the comics to her; eventually, she learned to read them to him. As an adult, she developed another newsprint ritual with her husband, swapping sections of her local Ohio newspaper back and forth with him over breakfast. She especially enjoyed a recent series on Black-owned businesses in town.

But now the local paper is throwing a wrench into her rhythms. After more than 100 years of publication, Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal has stopped printing on Mondays, when it instead offers readers a digital version of the newspaper.

“Your first thought is, as our aunt would have said, ‘Oh, good grief,’ ” Auburn said. “It’s a change, and for some of us, the paper has been a part of our lives.”

For more than two decades, industry sages have been predicting the death of the printed newspaper. Now, a growing number of local publishers are cutting back on their print editions, pointing to rising costs and arguing consumers will prefer the immediacy and convenience of online news.

Gannett, the largest chain in the country, last month eliminated one day of print per week at 136 of its newspapers, including at the Beacon Journal. Another 50 will make the change by June, with most losing Saturday print editions. Subscribers can download digital copies of the print paper, or e-editions, on those days. And the company touted online perks, saying it was “embracing our digital future with this evolved experience.”

Executives insist readers will get the same quality of journalism. Amalie Nash, Gannett’s senior vice president of local news, said there are “particular pressures” on print publications, including significant print costs, inflation and a shortage of drivers that has left 1 in 10 delivery routes unstaffed.

“Our focus is always on trying to keep as many resources as possible in our newsrooms, and so looking at the part of the business where we’re seeing declines, we have to mitigate for that and make sure that we’re doing the right strategic moves for the future of the business,” Nash said. “Our business is journalism and that’s at the core of what we do.”

The Gannett papers are hardly the first newspapers to head this direction. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland scaled back to three days of home delivery years ago. McClatchy, which owns 30 newspapers around the country, announced in 2019 it would cut Saturday editions. Citing the pandemic, the Tampa Bay Times reduced printing to just twice a week.

Some newspapers have eliminated daily printed editions, including two in Arkansas and Tennessee that embarked on an iPad-giveaway experiment to help print subscribers transition.

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And now inflation and supply-chain issues are driving supply costs through the roof. In an earnings call last month, the publisher and president of the Dallas Morning News, which still prints daily, said the company’s newsprint costs had soared to about $720 a metric ton, from $520 two years earlier.

In most cases, media companies are simply reacting to rising costs and a decline of print readers, said industry analyst Doug Arthur. In Gannett’s case, eliminating Saturday newspapers “likely removes the least profitable, smallest ad paper of the week.”

The abandonment of print has actually progressed more slowly than many anticipated, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. The change at Gannett “is incremental, but I think it’s a step along the way to bigger reductions.”

The fewer people who subscribe to a daily paper, the more expensive it becomes to deliver as paper routes get more and more scattered, Edmonds said. Some chains have sold their printing presses and outsourced the work to plants located farther away, which means stories have to be finished earlier in the evening, and the following day’s newspaper may not have the most up-to-date information.

Yet some publishing executives insist there’s still money to be made from physical papers. John Garrett, whose company Community Impact prints more than 40 free monthly local newspapers and provides daily online reporting, said the key is to produce a product that is attractive to both readers and local advertisers. He said his newsrooms are adding journalists.

“Print, well done, serves a really important purpose and can be successful,” he said.

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Gannett, which merged with the GateHouse chain in 2019, has set a goal of increasing its 1.6 million digital-only subscribers to 6 million by 2025. But print subscriptions still bring in significant cash, accounting for more than $1.2 billion in revenue compared with about $101 million for digital-only subscriptions. (The company expects revenue to dip but to turn a profit in 2022.)

Gannett’s newsrooms saw some layoffs after the merger and during the pandemic. By the end of 2021, the company employed 4,300 fewer people than a year prior, though it’s unclear how much of that 24 percent reduction affected journalists, and how much was because of layoffs vs. buyouts, attrition or other causes.

The Akron Beacon Journal endured layoffs long before it was purchased by GateHouse in 2018. But there were no job cuts to its 40-person newsroom last month when the Monday print paper was eliminated.

Beacon Journal Editor Michael Shearer has fielded calls and emails from frustrated subscribers — though he said many have expressed a version of: “we wish you weren’t doing it, but we understand.” He has written multiple columns explaining how to access reporting on Mondays, including describing how he helped a 77-year-old subscriber navigate the e-edition on her iPad.

“The point I’ve tried to make is the world has changed and that we have to change with it,” he said. “We have to focus on the sustainability of our journalism and making sure that we are here to serve the community.”

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Nash and others have also tried to boost the benefits of the digital newspaper, which looks like a traditional print newspaper on a screen. (Here is The Washington Post’s e-edition, for example.) Gannett has added news and sports sections to its more than 200 e-editions, and subscribers can download any of them, even if they only pay for one local paper. Nash said there has been a 140 percent increase in e-edition usage since the transition in March, and some public libraries have partnered with local papers to train readers on how to download them.

Many expect younger readers to adapt. Michael Maghes, a 46-year-old cafe owner in Akron, said he already gets his local news from newsletters and mobile alerts. “If I’m on vacation, I’d love to read an actual print newspaper,” he said, “but in the everyday craziness of life, I will just take the hits and skim through it, and if it’s something of interest to me, I’ll click on it.”

Yet Rita Kelly Madick, the former community relations director for the Beacon Journal, fears it will be hard for some readers, particularly older ones, to comprehend that the news is still there when it’s not on paper.

“My biggest concern is people equate a lack of a print edition on every corner, or in those news boxes, with newspapers going away,” Madick said. “And that scares me if they think we can function in a democracy without a Fourth Estate.”

Auburn, 76, values local journalism precisely for that reason, calling it “the glue” that holds a society together. She said she knows her way around a smartphone and news alerts, but “I haven’t developed my skill set” for the e-edition. So for several weeks after her local paper cut back on print, she and her husband saved sections of the Sunday New York Times to read the following day.

“So we did have a paper on Monday,” Auburn said. “It just wasn’t the Beacon Journal.”

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