Here’s a trick to help you judge the health of the newspaper industry: Pick up the Thanksgiving edition of your local paper. If it’s light, the local free press isn’t doing so well.

Historically, the Thanksgiving paper was the heaviest weekday paper of the year. Advertisers packed it full of inserts and page ads for Black Friday sales. Local stores and national chains spent big money to ensure that customers lined up for bargains and got in fistfights over PlayStations.

Over the past couple of decades, a lot of those advertising dollars moved online. Even if advertisers maintained their budget, less of the revenue went to local news publishers because the likes of Google and Facebook take a big cut.

Meanwhile, Black Friday stretched. It became a few days, weeks, more.

“Black Friday is a month this year, not just one day. As brands try to recoup some of the losses over the year, they want to extend the sale,” explained Rebecca Frank, vice president of research and insights at the News Media Alliance, which was formerly called the Newspaper Association of America.

Retailers also are taking pandemic precautions into account. “From a safety perspective, stores aren’t interested in bringing in all those people at once, for that crush we’re used to seeing,” Frank said.

Advertising

A monthlong Black Friday means that there’s no need to place advertisements specifically in the Thanksgiving edition of the local newspaper. Advertisers can spread them out. That doesn’t make them more abundant, just thinner.

U.S. newspaper advertising revenue peaked in 2005 at $49 billion. By 2018, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center, it had plummeted to $14 billion. The pandemic and its ensuing economic chill have made matters only worse. Newspaper advertising revenue was down 42% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to Q2 2019. The fact that Google and Facebook take a huge cut of online advertising revenue makes things even worse.

Frank said that in the spring, when the pandemic was just starting in the United States, many advertisers worried that placing ads next to stories about coronavirus would be bad for business. They were wrong.

“The risk to brands near news content related to the pandemic never materialized,” she said. In fact, pandemic coverage in the local free press has been a huge draw for readers. Having more readers means more reach for ads.

“Local news publishers had an opportunity to shine by showing the depth of their involvement in the community, their understanding of the unique factors of the community and the local decision makers,” Frank said. “This is a place where advertisers really could be helping local news more and more because we know that people need and want local news.”

Yet advertisers have been slow to come around. The ad revenue decline has hit papers of all sizes, even small community newspapers like the La Conner Weekly News north of Seattle. It’s had to scale back the number of pages it prints from eight to six most weeks. It had a brief resurgence before the election, but it was transient.

Advertising

“A concerted effort to gain political campaign advertising was essential to eight-page issues in July. Twice in October the paper went to 10 pages because of political ads,” said Ken Stern, the newspaper’s publisher. “Immediately afterward, on Nov. 4, a six-page issue was published.”

Stern worries that the next few months will be even rougher for his local newspaper that has served its community for more than 140 years.

“If area merchants have a dark winter, so will the Weekly News. If needed, I will reduce the paper to four pages, including legal notices,” he said. “I aim to survive, but if the economy tanks, I will be scrambling with all other businesses.”

Readers who believe that a vigorous local free press has value to its community, can help during this Black Friday month by patronizing businesses whose ads they see in the newspaper and on its website. Click through. Shop at local stores that advertise. Make it clear that pandemic news coverage doesn’t turn you off and that local advertising still is a wise investment.

Especially choose locally owned businesses that advertise. Shopping at them bolsters both the local economy and the local free press.