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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: Dear reader – Here’s why it’s more expensive to subscribe to The Spokesman-Review (but still worth it)

June 12, 2022 Updated Mon., June 13, 2022 at 8:52 a.m.

Thomas Rylands, right, a press expert from imPRESSions Worldside, manually guides the paper web through the Goss SSC Magnum press at Northwest Offset Printing in Spokane Valley, on June 29. The press printed The Spokesman-Review for the first time that night.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Thomas Rylands, right, a press expert from imPRESSions Worldside, manually guides the paper web through the Goss SSC Magnum press at Northwest Offset Printing in Spokane Valley, on June 29. The press printed The Spokesman-Review for the first time that night. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW) Buy this photo

The letter arrived a little more than a month ago and was hand-written, which always makes an impression when it’s so easy to just send an email. Only she hadn’t written it neatly in cursive for that reason.

Sharon sent an “old-fashioned” letter because she didn’t own a computer or a smartphone. Like all subscribers to our newspaper – and any newspaper, for that matter – her subscription costs continue to increase, to the point that she fears she won’t be able to afford to read The Spokesman-Review anymore.

That breaks her heart. Some of her family members already stopped their subscriptions because of the increases, and she wasn’t sure how she’d begin her days if that were to happen to her. She even had a suggestion. Well, it was more of a hopeful statement.

“I prefer a newspaper that depends on its advertisers for support and not its subscribers,” she wrote.

Sharon’s not alone – that’s the wishful thinking of nearly every newspaper publisher in the world. That’s because that was precisely the business model for newspapers in this country for more than three centuries.

Never say never, but it looks like that mostly ad-based daily newspaper model is long gone, or at least severely eroded. You often hear newspapers “were killed by the internet.” Like most things in today’s hyperbolic society, that’s an overstatement, but any truth there is to it is almost certainly different than most might expect.

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The biggest online obstacles facing local newspapers have little to do with readers moving to the web for news instead of in print. That’s because the majority of those looking for local news on the internet in Spokane get it from

If you look back to 1994, when The Spokesman-Review had the largest circulation in the newspaper’s history, its total audience size still wasn’t as large as it is now with our online readership.

There also is no truth to the idea that newspapers were late in embracing the web.

By the time Google was founded at the tail end of 1998, most daily newspapers in the United States already had websites. When Facebook was founded in the mid-2000s, many newspaper websites were a decade old, unless you’re talking about the newspapers that were on CompuServe in the 1980s, or even the newspapers that were on AOL back in the early 1990s.

The biggest online innovations in the late 1990s and early 2000s were even happening on newspaper sites. The commenting systems that eventually gave birth to today’s social networks, some of the web’s first podcasts, 360-degree virtual-reality photography and even full-screen video are just a few of the key parts of today’s internet that many people first experienced on a newspaper’s website.

So if it wasn’t about the audience moving online, what was it?

In a word, “advertising.”

There have always been lots of ads in newspapers, but classifieds were one of the biggies that really helped newspapers pay the bills. Sites like Craigslist put a huge dent in newspaper classified ads. Then there were all of the different jobs-listing sites. Then the real estate sites. And the automotive sites, and so on …

It would be hard to convince certain younger generations that this is true, but newspaper’s personal ads were the Tinder dating app before there was a Tinder. Or even before there were cellphones, let alone smartphones.

Instead of swiping left, or however those new dating apps work, people would put ads in the newspaper to meet others. If you have ever had “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” stuck in your head, then you know that the entire song’s premise is about meeting through a newspaper’s personal ads.

“… and getting caught in the rain.”

But even these online developments weren’t what hurt local daily newspapers the most.

Ecommerce. Online shopping. Whatever you want to call it, that is what hurt newspapers in the biggest way. That’s because the largest amount of advertising in local newspapers has always been by local businesses, particularly local retail stores, and especially big-box stores like Sears, or Sports Authority or Toys R Us or Woolworth’s or Kmart.

Those stores aren’t coming back. Online shopping, Amazon – in particular – helped shutter most of them, with COVID finishing the job.

It was local ads from local places for locals to shop at that really paid for newspaper subscriptions. In many cases, the cost of a newspaper subscription didn’t even cover the cost of printing and delivering it.

Yes, newspaper websites have ads, but as much as 70% of the online ad dollars in the United States now go to Google and Facebook. There used to be a saying in regards to newspaper advertising that it was “print dollars versus digital dimes,” yet the vast majority of those digital dimes head directly to Silicon Valley, not Spokane Valley.

It wasn’t just that those big print ads helped cover the cost of having a daily newspaper thrown on your porch. All of those ads from all of those stores that are no longer around also paid for the journalism. Almost all of it.

Back in the early 2000s, the publisher of the Washington Post was asked how the newspaper’s huge bureau in Baghdad was funded. His answer was “Macy’s” — although General Motors was actually the largest single advertiser in the Washington Post at that time. Those sorts of semantics don’t really matter, because neither of those advertisers are helping to pay for much newspaper journalism in the nation’s capital, let alone here in Eastern Washington.

Newspapers have done all sorts of things to try to make up those gaps, but what mostly happened was that newsrooms and other staffing across the newspaper were cut, there were fewer pages in the print editions and even certain days’ papers began to no be longer printed. Though it depends on which depressing source you turn to, we know that around 2,200 newspapers have completely shut down since 2004. But likely more.

There are some newspapers that are still making money, even decent profits, but the majority of those are owned by hedge funds that have cut more than any of us can imagine, producing daily newspapers with just a handful of local reporters … even here in Washington.

Because most of these hedge-fund owned newspapers have shut down their local printing presses in order to save money, those papers’ final deadlines are now often in the afternoon, not in the evening — which is how things have to be done when each day’s printed papers have to be trucked several hours each night back to a newspaper’s hometown.

So, how is The Spokesman-Review doing financially? Well, let’s just say we aren’t going to run out of red ink for our new printing presses out in the Valley anytime soon.

That’s why subscription prices are going up.

The local journalism that was once paid for largely by both big and small businesses through their advertisements in our newspaper is now paid for primarily by our subscribers. No one’s getting rich from these higher subscription prices. In fact, there is a still a fairly significant gap this newspaper needs to overcome if we are going to continue to publish the kind of newspaper you are reading today.

The most interesting thing in all of this is that our readers have already helped more than many might know. The Spokesman-Review has one of the largest newsrooms in the nation for a regional newspaper this size, and bigger than many newsrooms in much larger markets.

Back in the old days, there were numerous metrics that newspapers used to determine the number of journalists employed in a newsroom. None of those is really relevant anymore, but one metric once used by some publishers was that roughly 12% of a newspaper’s total revenues was allocated to be the newsroom’s budget.

The number in Spokane was never that low, but it also has never been anywhere even close to as high as it is right now. Over the past few years, it’s been more than double that old industry metric. At no point in The Spokesman-Review’s history has a higher percentage of total revenues been allocated to the newsroom and its local journalism than at this very moment.

Then layer in the way our community has embraced the idea of helping to directly fund journalists, whose stories are then essentially owned by the community itself. The Spokesman-Review now has one of the highest, if not the highest, percentage of journalists’ payroll being funded by sponsorships, grants and philanthropy of any regional daily newspaper in the nation.

That helps explain why we are the smallest news organization in the nation – and the only from Washington or Idaho – with a D.C. bureau. And why we still have a full-time reporter in the statehouse in Olympia. And why we have a new racial and social equity reporter who partners directly with the Black Lens newspaper. And why we just added a new reporter to help us better cover the counties that surround Spokane.

It is also explains why we are the smallest newspaper in the world to send a reporter halfway across the planet to cover the war in Ukraine – something that only makes sense because Spokane has one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the nation, with more refugees arriving every week.

All of this community-funded journalism also is why we publish more locally bylined stories in our newspaper now than we have at any other time in The Spokesman-Review’s history.

This is a direct result of our community, our readers and all of the support they have shown our newsroom. Mostly through your subscriptions. As amazing as all of the donations and grants we have received are, subscriptions are far and away the biggest way this newspaper pays for its journalism.

Which is why subscribing to our newspaper has continually gone up in price.

Now you know why.

None of that makes the note from Sharon any easier to take. Our newspaper writes all of these stories and takes all of these photos and makes all of those illustrations and builds all of these pages so that the most amount of people in our community can read them.

If you truly can’t afford it, before you cancel, you should call us. That doesn’t guarantee we can do anything to help, but we can at least try.

But if you can afford the rising subscription cost, we hope you will continue to support our local journalism with that subscription that now pays for it, instead of those ads from businesses that likely aren’t returning.

We won’t ask for more than we need to help us avoid the fate of so many other community newspapers across the nation. It’s your subscription that helps reporters pay their rent, buy groceries, get a mortgage, make a car payment and send their kids to school.

The Spokesman-Review wants to keep documenting the living history of our community, tell stories that need to be told, show you photos you want to see, make sure you have a daily crossword puzzle to work and a comic strip to laugh at for a long time.

And Sharon, you will definitely be getting a call from us, even if all we can do is thank you for supporting us.

Your hand-written response also is finally on its way.

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