Staying in Print in the Digital Age: The Role of An Independent Newspaper from VT to Alaska

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Staying in Print in the Digital Age: The Role of An Independent Newspaper from VT to Alaska

The Daily Sitka Sentinel’s own printing press at their headquarters in Sitka, Alaska.

The Daily Sitka Sentinel’s own printing press at their headquarters in Sitka, Alaska.

Emily Kwong/KCAW

The Daily Sitka Sentinel’s own printing press at their headquarters in Sitka, Alaska.

Emily Kwong/KCAW

Emily Kwong/KCAW

The Daily Sitka Sentinel’s own printing press at their headquarters in Sitka, Alaska.

By ARIADNE WILL

Thad Poulson and Angelo Lynn live 3,000 miles apart and have never met. As owners and publishers of independent newspapers, however, the two have experienced the recent decline in newspaper prosperity together.

“Until maybe ten years ago, we had no financial worries — we were on top of the world,” said Poulson, who has been running Daily Sitka Sentinel in Sitka, Alaska with his wife, Sandy, since 1969. “The newspaper had really hearty circulation and good advertisers, and we didn’t have any trouble finding staff.”

The glory days of print journalism have since ended, however.

“Things are much different now,” Poulson said. “The number of paying readers has peaked and we are on a slow, downward slope right now. Costs have outpaced the growth in earnings. The newspaper is not a prosperous operation anymore. We are holding our own, but it is nothing like it was in the old days.”

Lynn, owner of the Middlebury-based Addison Independent and other print publications, has also seen this decline, though he remains more optimistic than Poulson.

“The Addison Independent used to make more money than it does now, but whatever,” said Lynn. “Hopefully we can still make a living doing it. I think there is a way to make money in the newspaper business, but it won’t make as much money as it used to.”

Lynn, who has owned the Independent for the past 35 years, is not new to making changes in order to preserve the operation.

“We used to have a printing press here,” Lynn explained, “which was the reason the paper wasn’t making any money at the time. After we sold it and started printing at my brother’s press, we had more time to focus on the newspaper part and less on the printing part, so that solved that problem.”

For Poulson, though, sending his five-day-a-week paper off to a printer is not an option.

“If we were going to print less than a daily, we would sell our press and make a deal with a neighboring town to have it printed,” Poulson explained. “The press is a big expense for a small operation.”

Sitka, home of Poulson’s paper, however, is 92 miles from the nearest city and located on an island with no roads that lead out of town.

“We are so far away from everything we need to put the paper out,” he explained. “The paper that we print on comes from a paper mill three hundred miles from the coast of Washington State. We pay for a big van to be hauled empty three hundred miles to the paper mill, and then for the van full of paper to be hauled three hundred miles back to Seattle and shipped on the barge, eight hundred miles north to Sitka. Just the shipping costs over seven thousand dollars.”

Why keep paying such an immense price? For Poulson, the hefty price tag is worth it  to keep the newspaper a daily.

“There are no other daily newspapers within a circulation area that would include Sitka. There are no other newspapers that can circulate in Sitka on the same day of publication,” he elaborated. “That isn’t the case in almost any other place you can name in the United States. We’re the only game in town if you want to have a print report of the world.”

Though the cost of running a newspaper is immense, the digital age has been even more taxing on the business. Sentinel reporter Shannon Haugland believes that a generation raised in an era of screens is to blame.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to pay for anything,” Haugland said in an interview. “They don’t want to pay for content. Younger people find ways to steal movies, steal TV, and use the free videos that are available. I just can’t imagine a younger person today buying a newspaper the way I did.”

Michael Borenstein/The Middlebury Campus
The Addison County Independent headquarters at Marble Works.

Poulson agreed.

“Anything that people can get free, people are going to get free,” he said. “A newspaper costs money. There are circulation pressures on newspapers all over the place. With loss of advertising, newspapers make cuts to their news staff and they start to fail financially.”

Lynn has also felt the pressure of the digital revolution, here in Vermont.

“Digital is a huge challenge because it spreads the staff thin. You are at a point where you are trying to do a print edition along with digital and social media,” he said. “The website is one thing because you just take the printed news and put it on the website, but that doesn’t work to engage with the social community. Now, you have to do social media, which is like another business.”

This “other business” is not something that Poulson has the patience to entertain.

“The business is so much different now than it was years ago,” he said. “And when you get old like Sandy and me, it’s hard to keep up with all the things that we should be doing to keep ahead in this very different newspaper environment that we have now.”

While this digitization has played a huge role in the decline in paper sales, the struggles induced by social media go beyond the loss of interest in physical papers.

“I think the problem with social media is that on its own, it doesn’t have an editorial component,” said Lynn. “Newspapers get their reputation because they have editors and they put things into context and have reporters who have been doing things for a long time and they have some trust in the community. The problem with the Internet is that you don’t know where your news comes from, who the person is, what agenda they have, any of those things.”

Lynn is not alone in believing in the importance of newspapers as providing a filtered and analytical source. Poulson, too, believes that the reliability newspapers have provided for centuries is under attack by the immediacy of news received on screens.

“The digital communications revolution has changed the landscape all over the place,” Poulson said. “People get their information from the online sites that aggregate news from other sources. That’s the frustrating part— the news on those sites isn’t always from news sources. It’s been reconfigured and stolen and stitched together by anyone who feels like it.”

Old fashioned as newspapers may be, Haugland believes that they remain more than relics of a bygone age.

“I think people like having a newspaper, and I think a lot of people agree that when they move to a town and there’s a newspaper, it says something about the values of the community,” she said.

Without a paper, Haugland said, those values would be lost.

“I think newspapers are really important to communities because they hold people accountable,” she explained. “They hold decision makers, lawmakers, city officials, school officials, anyone working in the public sector, anyone working in the private sector— they hold all these people accountable in a way that isn’t reproduced anywhere online.”

Lynn agrees that papers are important. “There is still a role for community papers because they get everyone on the same page, so to speak,” he said, comparing this to the number of different sources that people can gather information from now. When the community reads from fifty different sources […] , what you’re reading isn’t what they’re reading.””

It is this sense of duty that has caused both men to keep to their newspapers for decades.

“I stay in the newspaper business for the love of the community and the role that the paper plays in the community,” Lynn said. “It’s worthwhile to think that your job is to inform the town in a way that makes it stronger. I don’t know what else you do. It’s like you just can’t quit, for some reason.”

Poulson’s response tapped into that same mentality. “There’s the notion that publishing a daily paper in a town this size is our calling,” he said, “just as someone feels called to praise the lord, to run a church, or to be a preacher. We’re the newspaper people.”

“You have to love it,” Lynn concluded. “If you don’t love it, it doesn’t work— it runs you ragged. But it’s a very worthwhile thing to do, or it seems very worthwhile. I don’t know what else I would do.”

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