“Geez, David. I’m glad the newspaper business is doing so well. I can hardly find the news anymore because of all these ads cluttering up my paper.” S.

Thanks, S. My only hope is that you see even more ads in your future. Let me explain why. More ads are good for you, even if you don’t often read the ads. We know that about half of our readers pick up the paper-primarily for the ads. Ads are content they want and need. The more ads, the happier that 50 percent of our readers are. The other half of our readers, perhaps like you S, pick up the paper-primarily for the news. The more news we have, the happier they are.

Here’s where two halves meet: the more ads we have, the more news we can afford to put in the paper. The idea of advertising-supported community journalism was not always part of the newspaper business. I’m going to give you a shortened and simplified history of the evolution of newspapers to help you where I see the future of community newspapers and ads in your paper heading. In the early days of America, papers were four and eight pages and were funded primarily by subscription revenue and political parties. The more radical the paper was, the more it appealed to its political base and financial backers. Newspapering was a bare-knuckled brawling industry with swashbuckling individuals as publishers. Because the papers were small and affordable to subsidize, each town had four, five, six, or ten newspapers in their market — papers for Whigs, Democrats, Republicans, Labor, Business, Government, and newspapers in the languages of Germans, French, Italians, Eastern Jews who spoke Yiddish and many others. The variety seemed endless. Because there were so many papers and they were relatively small in size, often households would buy multiple local papers because it did not take that much time to read two or three different four-page papers.

Then, with the industrial revolution and the rise of national commerce, papers began to evolve too. Papers started taking more ads to promote these larger national enterprises. Local merchants spent advertising money to keep pace with the national chains. Advertising became 80% of the industry’s revenues. Merchants did not want their ads in some radical newspaper with harsh viewpoints.

Why would you anger half your customers? Consequently, newspapers began to become more balanced. The golden egg of advertising needed to be protected. The opinion pages became distinct from the news. The news became more accurate and represented both sides. That period was the Golden Age of newspapers. Almost everyone read their local newspaper. That period of nonpartisan journalism reliant primarily on advertising revenue is over. Most of the media industry is moving back toward the original partisan model. With less reliance on advertising, they can worry less about angering advertisers. For instance, Fox News receives a hefty subscription fee from your cable bill and ads. Fox News reaches just 1 percent of the households with any given show, so they can afford to only have advertisers that support or tolerate its right-wing views. The New York Times is also becoming even more partisan. Subscriber revenue is the stated future of the New York Times — not advertising. They now can afford to be more partisan without as much reliance on advertising. I don’t want our papers to go down that hyper-partisan road — where readers look for potential bias and unfair reflection on their political leanings.

I like our newspapers needing to appeal to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents with our news coverage. To be mostly middle-of-the-road is connected to our ability to keep a solid and broad advertiser base. Not only does the quantity of ads help us create a larger quantity of news, but our extensive reliance on ads also helps keep us honest. We had better be accurate and reasonably balanced if we cover a local issue. I think that’s healthy for local democracy and for our business.

Share your thoughts. David@d-r.media

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