While I agree with almost everything Steve Yelvington has written about the news business, I do want to take issue with one thing: I think assuming long-term profitability of smaller papers is whistling past a pretty big graveyard, for several reasons.
First, the internet businesses that provide better service at less cost for markets like classifieds, jobs, and matchmaking have started in the largest urban areas first, for obvious reasons, but their economies of scale suggest that they have simply not colonized smaller conurbations yet. They’re coming; it’s just that Chillicothe gets Craigslist later than Chicago.
Second, news is not a small set of independent local businesses, like farmers’ markets. It’s an ecosystem, and the big papers subsidize huge parts of what appears in the smaller papers, providing disproportionate support for everything from the AP to opinion columnists to movie reviews. With enough suffering from the big papers, the smaller papers will no longer benefit from these subsidies.
Third, the lure of city living has returned to the nation’s youth, spurred in part by the net, which makes it much easier to explore possible job opportunities and housing options remotely. As a result, towns of progressively smaller populations have, ceteris paribus, residents of progressively advanced age. Since reading a newspaper is an old-person activity, the smaller the town, the higher the per capita consumption of papers (again, c.p.) This delays but does not dismantle the implacable logic of subscription loss. (Someone recently tweeted that small-town papers should rename their local obituaries “Subscriber Countdown!”)
Fourth, and finally, the grim reaper: the bundle that is the newspaper doesn’t make any sense. Box scores and soup recipes and Mark Sanford’s political woes and IBM’s closing price and a review of Taylor Swift’s new album don’t actually have any coherent rationale for being delivered together. All of those things went into the paper because print and distribution costs meant that the publisher added whatever content would cost marginally less than it would generate in display ads, a calculation that had nothing to do with coherence of bundled content and everything to do with industrial economics. Which economics do not translate to the web.
2009 is plainly the year of the Metro Dailies’ nabka, but the relative freedom from crisis felt by the smaller papers is, I believe, likelier to be a mere postponement of the same issues, rather than a stay of execution.