Last month I shared newfound optimism that Congress has awakened to the crisis of our nation’s fragile local free press system. Now I want to share how The Seattle Times has innovated and adapted to change in the marketplace and dispel false perceptions about the relevance of newspapers.
The Seattle Times produces more local news in our respective communities than all other local sources combined. We are consistently the most trusted source of information. Local news is, in fact, more relevant and necessary than ever. Democracy, civility and the American dream are in danger of losing relevance if we don’t seize the present opportunity to save our local free press system.
For 125 years and five generations, The Seattle Times has been a family business. More recently, so have our papers in Yakima (1991) and Walla Walla (1971). For our family, newspapers are perpetual multigenerational public-service stewardships.
Serving as the community square and community’s center of gravity is our purpose. Connecting our neighbors to one another and to the community as a whole is part of our daily quest.
We are your monitor of local government, public services and elected officials. We are your voice for safe communities and equitable schools, and your spotlight on both the good works and bad deeds of powerful corporations, unions and individuals. We are your defender of accessible public records and protection from public servants eager to hide public information. We are your watchdog for inequity in our community, and your advocate for the American dream for all. It is our job to highlight solutions to community problems and ensure accountability of the people and organizations responsible for the public good.
Our mission and purpose have not changed in 125 years. What has changed is our business model. Some of the change is voluntary to adapt to generational, societal and technological changes. Some of the change has been forced upon us by the unfettered monopolistic practices of Google, Facebook and Apple and, until recently, congressional and presidential lack of interest in ensuring a healthy, robust local free press system.
From a business standpoint, we are a news and journalism storytelling company. Our reporting and storytelling remain mission-centric, with multiple new ways to distribute it and make it accessible.
When people tell me newspapers are dying, I explain that we are not dying, we are changing, innovating and growing the ways to distribute our reporting and storytelling. Think of us as a multiplatform journalism company. We are expanding our reach and audiences by no longer being limited to print distribution. Our audience today is larger than ever, with deeper readership in every demographic segment.
In 2015, we created Project 2030. Our goal was two-fold:
- Track generational cohorts over five-year periods to determine our reach.
- Ensure development of a mix of accessible delivery products and relevant context to keep all cohorts engaged.
Based on results to date, we have been very successful.
- As of June 2021, The Seattle Times has accomplished:
- Record audience: 2.1 million in the 17-county western Washington DMA
- Record subscription revenue (print and digital)
- Record unique monthly online visitors: 10.9 million
- Strong reach in all age cohorts: Largest percent reach is millennials (age 25-44) at 70%, next-largest reach is Gen Z (age 18-24) at 61%
(Source: Nielsen Scarborough, 2021, Release 1)
Both the marketplace and Project 2030 tell us digital news content distribution is coming of age and is one of the most important ways people receive real, professionally vetted local news and information.
We call our distribution effort “digital first.” Yet print remains very relevant, especially Sunday, and will for a long time.
The Seattle Times’ digital audience growth has been outstanding. We just hit a record 75,000 digital subscriptions. The most popular digital subscription is all digital plus Sunday print.
Subscription revenue is now our largest revenue, though the increase doesn’t come close to the adverting revenue lost due to big tech monopolization.
To offset the loss of advertising revenue that had been funding our newsroom and operations, in 2011 we created a unique innovation: community investment in public-service journalism. As a result, we are one of the very few regional news organizations to add newsroom staff and expand critical storytelling –
quite a feat in an industry that has lost over 40,000 newsroom jobs in the past decade. Community-funded public-service journalism has expanded our local investigations and coverage of education, traffic, homelessness and soon, mental health.
Allow me to dispel three false perceptions about local newspapers:
MYTH: Newspapers are dying.
FACT: Newspapers like The Seattle Times are experiencing record audiences. In communities with hedge-fund or absentee ownership, many papers are dying, but due to owners’ distressed-asset mentality, which leads them to take as much money out of the operation as quickly as possible and walk away.
MYTH: Newspapers are losing readers.
FACT: Local newspaper stewardships are expanding their audiences with innovation and digital delivery to complement print.
MYTH: Young people don’t read newspapers.
FACT: Seattle is an example of strong youth audience using multiple delivery channels and products.
In 1775, the cost of producing and distributing the printed newspaper was subsidized by the Founding Fathers to enable and sustain their new democracy. Ubiquitous production and distribution of the local newspaper was essential to their vision. Without it, the rich and powerful would control information and their vison of a new democracy would only be a pipe dream. The cost of producing and distributing a newspaper today has become an onerous expense. For many years, production and delivery were covered by advertising revenue. Due to the big tech monopoly, that is no longer the case.
Next month, I will share the road map necessary to restore, rejuvenate and rebuild America’s local free press system – a necessity to reunite our divided and fractious country.
Frank A. Blethen
Publisher, The Seattle Times