Amid the newspaper industry’s carnage, the resurrection of a Spokane daily is intriguing and may be a harbinger for other cities.
The Spokane Daily Chronicle resumed publishing last week for the first time since 1992, not as a printed newspaper but an evening electronic edition.
In an ideal world this would be a competitor to the local stalwart, The Spokesman-Review. But it’s actually an offshoot of the Spokesman, produced by the Spokesman’s newsroom and delivered electronically to subscribers at no extra charge.
As we look for ways to save the local, independent press that’s vital to democracy and communities, we should think about saving not just a single daily in regional centers like Spokane but enabling multiple outlets to survive. Competition makes local media better and gives people more choices and news coverage.
But that’s looking down the road, after the industry stabilizes, retools for digital competition and emerges from its current death spiral.
A new Pew Research report found employment in newspaper newsrooms — the primary source of most local news coverage — continued plunging through 2020 despite surging readership during the pandemic.
Since 2008, newspaper newsroom jobs fell 57%, from around 71,000 to 31,000, Pew reported. Digital ventures’ newsrooms grew over that same period, from 7,400 to 18,000 jobs, but that rate doesn’t appear sustainable and would still take decades to replace newspapers’ lost reporting capacity.
Meanwhile, the struggle to survive is acute for the few remaining family-owned, independent dailies pursuing quality journalism. The Spokesman is hanging on and growing readership. But it substantially reduced its newsroom in recent years, then had to cut its Saturday print edition during the pandemic.
With subscriptions becoming the primary revenue source, instead of advertising, papers straddling urban, suburban and rural areas are also having to make hard choices about where to distribute printed editions. In some areas, they lose money delivering papers, because subscriptions aren’t enough to cover the cost.
The combination of reduced delivery areas and print frequency means more news will be delivered digitally, either via newspapers’ websites or e-editions, which are digital replicas of the printed newspaper.
Some readers have already embraced e-editions. I always considered them an afterthought, a quick and easy way to distribute pages already designed on screens and sent electronically to printers.
Spokesman Editor Rob Curley said that was his thinking too — “it was like Keebler elves did it in the middle of the night” — until he saw how other dailies that cut print frequency last year were turning to e-editions to fill the gaps.
“All of a sudden the e-edition started to matter now. I felt like that happened sometime during the pandemic,” he said.
From a business perspective, the Chronicle is a clever use of the paper’s digital platform and assets.
It’s also smart for the Spokesman to create something new and fresh for customers, especially those who miss evening papers and loyal subscribers who have seen papers get thinner and prices rise.
A big consideration was how to retain subscribers, because “it’s so much more expensive to get a new subscriber than to keep one you have,” Curley told me. “With subscription costs going up, how to you increase the value?”
Preserving the premium print product is ideal but sadly that’s not always an option. We’ll see if readership falls further as print declines.
Curley said the Spokesman added an evening edition to its website around three years ago and now sees more readership in the evening than morning.
The Chronicle has eight pages with no repeat stories from the Spokesman, and different comics and puzzles, Curley said. Its front two pages emphasize breaking news.
Inside features include a historical front page from Chronicle archives and a photo page, nodding to the past Chronicle’s emphasis on photography.
There’s no additional staffing, at this point at least. The 60-person Spokesman newsroom continues as normal, and editors decide which material to post on the website or use in the Chronicle, Curley said.
“We haven’t asked them to do anything different,” he said. “It’s more about repurposing what we’re already doing and now giving it to these other readers.”
Sometimes differences are slight. Monday’s front page had an updated story about the search for a drowning victim. The drowning was also reported on the website and in the paper.
Still, I like the creativity and nostalgic approach the Spokesman is taking with the Chronicle.
As newspapers pursue new business models, they need to think more like successful digital services that continually experiment and add things to engage and retain customers.
At the same time, it’s bittersweet to hear of a daily newspaper being resurrected without a newsroom of its own.
I’m sympathetic with former Chronicle staffers who were asked how to revive the paper’s spirit, not just its brand. Curley said their top suggestion was “to add a person whose only job is to kick the Spokesman’s ass.”
That’s not because I have anything against the Spokesman — I’m rooting for them to succeed — but because America needs more news outlets and more competition between them.
Fingers crossed, the Chronicle and its ilk may get there someday.