Saturday, October 13, 2018

Main lobby for community papers reports a big loss, even as it celebrates one of its greatest victories; it needs members

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

The main lobbying organization for community newspapers in the United States recorded a big loss in the 2017-18 fiscal year, just as it was fighting an ultimately winning battle against tariffs that spiked the cost of newsprint. The papers' second biggest cost is printing.

In its annual report to members, the National Newspaper Association reported operating revenues of $867,436 and total operating expenses of $1,033,803, for a loss of $166,366. "Membership was hit hard by a decrease in revenue of $150,137," NNA reported. "Since 2007, membership revenue has decreased 10 out of the past 12 years. In 2007, membership revenue was $963,447, dropping to this year’s level of $579,724." The report did not reveal the number of members.
NNA said, "We all know the challenges that are facing the industry, and this year’s dramatic decrease is in direct response to the newsprint tariff challenges. Ironically, NNA’s strength and value is in its ability to protect the interest of members as witnessed with the tariff victory in late August. Without NNA’s leadership, the tariff fight could have ended differently. Tariffs on newsprint forced many operations to cut staff, reduce page count, shrink web size or reduce publishing days. Unfortunately, as newspapers are facing ever-increasing financial challenges, all too often memberships to any organization or association are one of the first expenses to be cut, no matter how valuable. The board is critically aware of the financial challenges and is working to mitigate the losses with expense reductions and the hope that with the tariff fight behind us, membership will stabilize and we can see future increases."

Data from Penny Abernathy, U. of North Carolina; chart by BBC
The NNA's report is troubling. The long-term membership decline reflects a significant decrease in the number of community newspapers in the last 15 years, mostly among small papers, especially those not based in county seats. The decline in the past year was even more troubling, but also ironic, coming amid one of the greatest battles NNA ever fought, and one it won. I do not believe the association overreaches when it says the tariff fight could have ended differently without its leadership. I do believe that NNA clearly made a difference, mobilizing editors and publishers in a lobbying campaign that looked very much like an uphill battle when it began.

I also believe that the tariffs were the greatest single existential threat to rural journalism and community newspapers in their history, greater than the advents of radio, television, the digital revolution and social media. That is not to discount the latter two threats, to which many community newspapers have not adequately adapted. But as they deal with those challenges and diminished resources, I hope they realize that their businesses may have been saved by NNA, and that they should support it with their membership dues. I do, as an associate member.

No other organization fights such battles at the national level for rural and community newspapers and the journalism they provide. The tariff fights shows that these issues go beyond the often complex dealings with the U.S. Postal Service, which is increasingly used by community dailies for delivery. NNA is largely a weeklies' organization, but dailies need to support it, too. It stands for newspapers, journalism and their essential roles in democracy. All papers should be members.

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