Switching to digital represents a new hope for struggling newspapers, WEHCO Media president Walter Hussman Jr. said.
WEHCO Media is the parent company of Central Missouri Newspapers, Inc., which owns the Fulton Sun.
Papers across the nation are in big financial trouble, Hussman told the Fulton Rotary Club during an online meeting Wednesday. Since 2006, the amount of money spent on print advertisement has plummeted by three-fourths. The ongoing pandemic has hit print ad revenue hard, too. Traditionally, ad revenue has represented up to 80 percent of papers' income, with subscriptions being the other 20 percent.
"When you get 80 percent of revenue from advertising and that declines 75 percent, it's a wonder we still have any newspapers," Hussman said.
In fact, more than 2,000 papers have closed in the last 15 years, he said. Most have been weekly papers; some were daily papers that transitioned to weekly before shuttering, and a small handful were daily papers.
The reason for that decline in revenue is primarily the shift to digital advertising, Hussman explained.
"Advertisers historically wanted to reach as many people as they could reach," he said. "Now they want to target their advertising."
The best way to do that is through digital advertising, currently a booming industry. But Facebook and Google have already cornered the market — newspapers may try to sell ads through their websites, but they've learned the hard way they can't compete.
The Washington Post tried, Hussman said. After purchasing the paper, Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos doubled the newsroom staff and offered all the paper's content for free online in an attempt to drive up page views. Though more visitors flocked to the paper's website, the paper's digital ad revenue just couldn't support its journalism. The Washington Post's paywall went back up.
"The battle is already over for digital ads," Hussman said.
This isn't the first time the written word has weathered major changes, he added.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex S. Jones (not to be confused with the talk radio host) said the human race has seen three major revolutions in written communication. The first was the development of written language, in around 3,000 B.C.
"Now you can take human communication and transport it over distances, or take human communication and transport it over time," Hussman said.
The second was the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. Previously, books — and particularly Bibles — had to be hand-copied at great expense and were thus available only to the rich.
"The cost of replicating text dropped by 99-plus percent," Hussman said.
The advent of the World Wide Web was the third revolution, and it, too, dropped the cost of sharing written words by a huge percentage.
"Whether you like reading something in print or onscreen, there are unbelievable cost advantages to digital, for not just text but photos and videos and other types of content," Hussman said.
Newspapers are adapting to this new era in several ways. Many are slimming down their newsrooms. From 2008-17, the United States lost nearly half of its newsroom jobs, plummeting from 71,000 to 39,000. Others are raising their subscription prices. Still others are focusing on their websites — a strategy that's worked well for national newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, but less so for regional and local papers.
"Newspapers don't feel they can charge as much for a digital subscription," Hussman said. "In many cases, the consumer sees it as an inferior product."
WEHCO is trying a different strategy with the Fulton Sun and several of its other newspapers. Rather than dropping the print edition altogether, they're switching to a one-day print, seven-day digital model. And instead of just scrolling through the website, subscribers can flip through a digital replica edition on the Fulton Sun's app or website. The experience is meant to mimic that of reading a print newspaper.
"What we're trying to do is find a solution to saving community journalism," Hussman said. "We think, using a digital replica edition, we could remain a daily paper."
The Fulton Sun will send out its first Saturday print edition Aug. 8.
Hussman said the strategy has been successful at several of the company's papers. Generally, subscribers are reluctant at first but grow to love the digital replica edition after a few weeks, he said. The number one reason: With the ability to zoom in on text, readers can take their reading glasses off.
People also enjoy the ability to save previous editions of the paper and have articles read aloud to them by the app. Plus, going digital makes it cost-effective for the paper to include more color photos than ever before. The digital edition can even include videos.
"We're in the business of storytelling," Hussman said. "We think by showing multiple photographs and videos we can tell the story even better than we have in the past."
Still have questions about the Fulton Sun's transition? Submit them to [email protected], and check the Sunday paper for an FAQ article answering readers' questions.