The incredible shrinking newspaper

By Randa Wagner

February 11, 2014

If you’re a regular newspaper reader - ANY newspaper - you have probably wondered why what you hold in your hands seems so different than what you remember just a few years ago.

When I worked for the Sentinel in the early 2000s, the paper grew to 3 sections and 30 - 36 pages. It was filled with local news and sometimes we struggled to fill all the space we had each week. We also printed the Morrow County Independent each week for Cardington subscribers.

When I returned to the paper in 2010, the Independent was no longer published separately. We had an average of 22-24 pages in the Sentinel and it usually accommodated all the news. That was good, because our website was a bare-minimum site that allowed for just a few stories each week, obituaries and some sports. We were told, however, that the website would be changing to accommodate more news to attract the readers who preferred to get their news online. Eventually, the website did upgrade and we were able to offer much more news online, and post breaking news and time-sensitive announcements.

Now it is early 2014, and we are down to 14 pages a week. We are unable to run many articles full length in the paper to make room for more news, and we NEVER get all the news in we have scheduled to run. If we were a daily paper, it wouldn’t be a problem. But for a weekly paper, it isn’t good at all.

Why can’t the Sentinel be like it used to be 14 years ago? What happened?

The economy happened, and it happened big.

Any newspaper, magazine, or circular depends on advertising to pay for the cost of publishing the printed material. Your Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian and Time magazines, New York Times and Morrow County Sentinel all depend on advertising sales to pay the office’s heat bill, employee salaries, paper, ink, etc. it takes to produce the product. The product’s production cost is supposed to be covered by the time the magazine of newspaper gets loaded on the trucks to be delivered. Newsstand sales and subscriptions are profit, since they fluctuate.

Guess what happens when the economy is is a slump and businesses cut back on costs or close? Advertising money dries up. Fourteen years ago the Sentinel featured grocery store and car dealers ads every week of local businesses that no longer exist or use other forms of advertising. Many companies besides our own Civitas Media want a 50% advertising-to-news ratio in the print editions, so when ads are few, it affects the number of pages we get get to work with. Hence the 14-page paper of late.

It isn’t just in Morrow County - it’s everywhere. It’s where the country is at right now. A slumping economy affects everything, one way or another. But there’s also other factors affecting newspapers in our modern age.

Computers and the internet.

What started out as reel-to-reel, data-only room-sized computer units in the 1960s have evolved into compact sources of instant information, research, graphics and social media centers. Computers, iphones and tablets now deliver every service humans used to receive by postal service, television, radio and newspaper - in the blink of an eye. Newspaper publishers recognized this years ago and began shifting advertising and news toward electronic media to keep up with the trend and the new generation of readers and consumers coming of age. Those of us in the business had to adapt and keep up or find another line of work.

So here we are, whether we like it or not. At the Sentinel, our consolation is that we now put ALL the news on the latest version of our website (not as pretty as it used to be, but chock full of news). We can post breaking news, obituaries and news of particular interest right away.

HOWEVER… this does not serve the needs of our readers who do not use computers or the internet. This is the number one complaint I get from our older subscribers and, sadly, I have no solutions for them. Just like radio evolved into television and oil lamps evolved into electrical lighting, this is the direction news and media companies are headed. Print newspapers are slowly passing the way of the dial telephone and vinyl records, whether we like it or not. I can’t change it, but I would if I could.

The Sentinel has changed hands three times since 2010 and it would be easy to blame the newest company for all our misgivings and concerns about how things are now. But the same thing is happening at other Ohio and U.S. papers as well. Imagine the shock of Columbus Dispatch customers the first time they received the ‘small’ version of the daily print version the Dispatch went to in 2013. Yes, it’s easier to hold and read during a transit commute to work, but it’s not what it used to be. Some major newspapers have shut down altogether and will not return. The U.S. lost 105 in 2009 alone, including the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News. Some papers have merged to save themselves from the same fate. Times are changing.

What we CAN do at your local newspaper office is our very best to keep up with what’s going on in the county with whatever means we have available for as long as we can. Our printing services have been consolidated as well as our graphic design department and layout work. So much of what was formally provided and produced locally for newspaper is gone; moved to centralized facilities set up to serve dozens of papers per site. This creates its own unique problems. It costs jobs in one area to bring them to another, but that it the way many American businesses are operating now - again, like it or not.

This column is an explanation, not an excuse, for why things are they way they are in the newspaper business now. It’s all I can offer to our readers to explain why we are at the point we are with the Sentinel. We will be here until the presses stop running some day. It’s the best we can do.