Community support is key to Local’s sustainability

Posted 10/12/23

I was at the Fall for the Arts Festival on Sunday, working at the Chestnut Hill Local booth, when a woman told me she was worried about the Local's future.

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Community support is key to Local’s sustainability


I was at the Fall for the Arts Festival on Sunday, working at the Chestnut Hill Local booth, when a woman approached me a little sheepishly, looked up at me through her corrective lenses and told me that she was nervous. It turns out she had read my column from last week and it caused her to be concerned that the Local is not in good financial shape and could go out of business. 

That was not the intention of last week’s article, nor is it representative of our current situation. 

On the other hand, we will not be used as a case study of a business with strong financial footing by the Wharton School anytime soon. I’m not sure there’s a media company out there, let alone a newspaper company, that fits that description right now. 

The newspaper business has been in turmoil for decades. Since 2004, almost 3,000 newspapers have folded. Since 2019 alone, 360 newspapers have “stopped the presses” permanently, and most of those were weeklies. Additionally, many family-owned newspapers have had to sell out to Alden Capital or other chains that lay off journalists and strip the news content in the paper and online to next to nothing. The term “ghost newspapers” has crept into the media lexicon to describe such news organizations.

Earlier this year, the Steinman family in Lancaster gifted its newspaper (LNP, published since 1794) to the Harrisburg publication television station. A few months ago, the family that had owned the Scranton Times since 1895 voted to sell it and some of its other newspaper holdings to Alden Capital. A dissenting family member, George Lynett, released this statement after that sale was announced: 

“The willingness to sell a company steeped in integrity and family tradition – and staffed by loyal, bright, compassionate employees – to a company with such a devastating reputation in the industry runs against everything we believe in. We are concerned for our employees, our communities and our family legacy.

Newspapers are a tough business. That’s undeniable. But a newspaper is much more than just a business. It is the only business explicitly protected by the Constitution. It is a local institution and is expected to track government spending, keep an eye on politicians, advocate for the voiceless, ask tough questions, cover local sports and businesses, and record the milestones in readers’ lives.

Newspapers provide the “first draft of history” as the local historical record. They are the only true local watchdog with a newsroom and resources capable of providing in-depth, verified news and investigative reporting on a large scale in any community.”

Just because the Local is situated in the affluent conclave of an urban village, it is not immune to the financial pressures of its industry. I also think some people I talk to view the Local as some charming and harmless little publication, more like a newsletter than a newspaper. That could not be further from the truth. I know right away that those people don’t actually read the Local. They may get the Local, but they don’t “get” the Local. 

The Local is a serious newspaper produced by serious journalists. There are more than 120 years of journalism experience in our newsroom.  (And that’s just counting Len Lear!) The folks in advertising, production, circulation and the business side of the operation are equally accomplished and knowledgeable.

Despite the great talent we are blessed with at the Local, staying in business is a challenge for many reasons. There was a time in the newspaper business when the phone rang off the hook with businesses wanting to place ads. I’ve been in newspapers since 1989, and when I started, I had just missed those Halcyon days. There is a long list of reasons for the decline of the industry.  There is even a longer list of people who think they know how to fix it. 

The advice I hear a lot is, “You should just go all digital.”  To that, I reply, “Can you give me one example of a digital-only news site that supports itself on advertising and circulation revenue?”  There may be some out there, but no one has been able to name one for me. 

The newspaper industry tried to go “digital first” before there were any business models in place to do so. Digital revenue at most newspapers never did develop the way everyone expected it to. Explaining that would require another opinion piece. 

Suffice it to say, while improving our website and expanding our digital offerings to include video, e-newsletters, podcasts, etc. is important to our customers, and therefore to our future, discontinuing the printed newspaper is not a near-term option or strategy. Extending our coverage area and reach is also important to our survival. Expanding our audience by providing news and information that matters to our communities is an economic imperative as well as a moral imperative. 

Improving our digital revenue prospects and reporting on issues with impactful articles that inspire people of goodwill to take action are the types of activities that can also attract grants and other funding. We recently hired Samantha Gibb Roff as the Local’s first-ever Development Associate (with the help of a generous gift from Bob and Nancy Elfant) to find funding to support these projects. Philanthropy is fast becoming, and will be for the foreseeable future, an important piece of the survival picture for most news organizations. 

To the woman who talked to me at Fall for the Arts and to the rest of you reading this, let me just tell you that the Local is not on its last legs. Far from it. There are more paths to sustainability now than there were five years ago. There is a shared vision for the future. There is a willingness and commitment among the staff and the Local’s board of directors to take the steps necessary to guarantee not only survival but moreover, prosperity. It’s all right there . . . just beyond our fingertips. 

The only thing needed to close that gap is you. Community support. I hope you will join with the dedicated staff and board of the Local to do everything in your power to keep the Local chugging along. 

Thank you to my co-workers at the Local and across the hall at the CHCA for your support and friendship And to everyone who has taken the time to read this, may every day find you and yours “happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.”

John Derr

Publisher, The Chestnut Hill Local