As newspaper circulations plummet, does the not-for-profit model offer a solution to stave off print news deserts?
Circulation counts for central Illinois newspapers appear to be on a precipitous downward decline.
Columnist and retired Western Illinois University journalism professor Bill Knight opined on the topic in this month's Community Word newspaper. He cited circulation numbers the Illinois Press Association sourced from the annual Statement of Ownership forms newspapers file with the U.S. Postal Service.
Knight said most local dailies shed about three-quarters of their circulation in the past decade. For instance, the Peoria Journal Star reported a print circulation of 66,720 in 2010 — but just 15,194 last year. The Pekin Daily Times is down to 1,742 last year — from 7,957 in 2010.
"Even if you include the digital version, it's still way down from what it used to be almost print-only 10, 20 years ago," said Knight in an interview with WCBU.
That's not a fact Knight celebrates. He sees the newspaper as an essential part of a local news ecosystem that also includes mediums like TV and radio.
"The classic purpose of a newspaper in this country was to hold people accountable, whether it's ordinary individual residents, or government, or business. And we don't see that as much. And I'm not criticizing the reporters, because there's so few of them," he said. "They're doing what they can."
Knight said national papers like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are on much stronger ground, financially. That's helped those publications maintain robust news operations. But he said gaps begin to emerge in the knowledge of what's happening in one's neighborhood when the local news apparatus begins to decay.
"We're really well informed about global and national issues to the large extent. But meanwhile, we're not sure what's going on with the city council or county board or village board or school board," he said.
The Internet is at least partially to blame. A measure on Capitol Hill allowing news organizations an antitrust loophole enabling the companies to collectively bargain with news aggregators like Google and Facebook was blocked. And Knight said many readers aren't willing to pay for content hidden behind a paywall.
"The result is fewer people, fewer editions, smaller newspapers, and deliveries, a whole other chaotic factor. But the ultimate consequences if you're expecting free anything, you're probably not going to get what you really need in order to have a civic awareness of what's happening now," he said.
For his part, Knight puts stock in the not-for-profit model adopted by papers like the Salt Lake Tribune.
"I think the not-for-profit model is promising, because they don't have that fiduciary responsibility to return on investment. The investment is the community," he said.
A model giving tax breaks to subscribers and advertisers supporting their local paper might also offer some promise, said Knight.
"I think government has not only an obligation, but should have a sense of responsibility to that democracy, whether it's your township, or the federal level, (it) relies on (an) informed electorate, and if not, then we're fooling ourselves," he said.