I dropped my newspaper subscription today

"That's the press, baby!"

“That’s the press, baby!”

Of course, the emphasis there is on “paper.” I only dropped the print version of The State. I still get it online.

That lowered the price of my subscription from $46 a month to $9 and something. Maybe $9.99. I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was in the middle of my afternoon walk around the USC campus when they called me on account of my having gotten a new debit card to replace the one that expired this month, and the autopay wasn’t working.

So I said, while I’ve got you, I want to drop the dead-tree version….  I only read it online anyway. That’s the only way I read any newspapers. I subscribe to The State, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and read them all on my iPad. The New Yorker, too. I dropped The Wall Street Journal several years back because it got too expensive.

So nothing lost, and a savings of more than $400 a year. A good deal.

Still, I’m a newspaperman. That’s who I am, no matter whether I’m employed doing it or not.

So there seems something historic about this, from my own perspective, and thought I’d take note of it.

Of course, I was never really wedded to the paper part of the equation. Starting in about 1980 when we went from typewriters to a mainframe front-end system, I started wishing that when I hit SEND for a story to go to the copy desk, it would just go straight to the reader. And it only took what, a couple of decades for that to happen.

So it’s all to the good. But still, there’ll be a bit of nostalgia for the days when I was the guy who said “Stop the presses!” when something big happened (or when we realized we’d made a big goof on one of the pages), and it really meant something. It felt a little like being Bogart in “Deadline U.S.A.”

I guess, in a sense, what I did today was say “Stop the presses!” just one more time….

26 thoughts on “I dropped my newspaper subscription today

  1. Mark Stewart

    $46 per month for The State in ink on paper???

    Google does offer a better value to the consumer…

  2. Doug Ross

    The only way for McClatchy to have a chance of survival would be to drop all production of hardcopy papers. Killing trees and delivering yesterday’s news is a terrible business model. The product is news, not newspaper.

  3. Sally

    Sorry, Brad. I’m one of the print edition hold outs. Actually, get the whole bundle. Print, e-edition, website access. (The State’s website has been and continues to be terrible.) Old habits die hard, and I’d rather stare at newsprint than a glaring iPad screen first thing in the morning. Also, I’ve always thought delivering the paper may be someone’s second or third job. Sentimental, I guess, but my father and Uncle Jack delivered The Savannah Morning News to help the family income during the Depression. If I can help out my carrier make ends meet and avoid computer brain buzz, I’ll continue to take it. Plus, newsprint is very recyclable. Way easier to recycle than computer equipment.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, as I alluded to above, I’d wanted electronic delivery of the paper since about 1980.

      Then, in the early ’90s, I heard about Roger Fidler’s prediction of tablets, and I was immediately eager to have one. (As it happens, Fidler first predicted tablets in an essay in 1981, but I didn’t hear about it until the early ’90s, about the time when I was first using PCs — still years away from using PCs instead of the mainframe to put out the paper.)

      I finally got my tablet — an iPad 4 — in 2013, and immediately started reading any newspaper to which I subscribe on that. The experience is vastly superior to the paper version. If nothing else, it saves all that turning and twisting and unfolding and refolding to read. Then there’s the fact that, at least on the apps of papers that know what they’re doing (I don’t include The State — or perhaps I should say McClatchy — in this), the news is up-to-date and easy to find.

      The best apps, such as the NYT and WP and WSJ — do an excellent job of reproducing a newspaper’s ability to communicate what’s important, so you can go straight to that. The methods are a little different from the ways we communicated it on paper — the lede always being a vertical element on the right-hand side — but it tends to be effective.

      As for timeliness, that was one of my main motives for wanting to move from paper in 1980. I HATED the fact that people saw TV as faster than we were. The local TV station we competed against wasn’t nearly as fast or thorough or professional as we were. We just couldn’t get it immediately to readers when we were done with it. When I hit SEND on one of my reporters’ stories on that mainframe system, it was ready to be read. But it still had to go through a 19th-century production and delivery process, which took nearly an hour under the best circumstances (copies of our first edition destined for boxes downtown, to be read over lunch), and several hours for most readers.

      And that was on an afternoon paper, which was FAR faster than a morning paper. I’ve never understood why readers in the 80s decided they preferred AM papers to PM — almost nothing in them was newer than 12 hours old.

      It’s even worse today, at least with The State. Their press deadlines are so ridiculously early now that Doug’s description of “yesterday’s news” is kind of optimistic. If it happened on a Tuesday evening, you won’t see it until Thursday morning’s paper.

      Of course, Doug thinks newspapers didn’t just go ahead and ditch the paper version back in the 90s because they’re too stupid. He doesn’t understand the economics, involving such things as the higher rates papers could charge for print ads, and the fact that there has been (up to now) enough of a demand for the paper product that abandoning it would mean some low-cost operator would come in and print some piece of worthless garbage just to get that ad revenue.

      At least, that’s the way it was 10 years ago when I at the paper. The economic forces have shifted since then, and I gather that the perceived advantages of having a print product no longer outweigh the horrific cost of producing and distributing one.

      Watch for the print version to disappear before long. Personally, I’m kind of dreading that, because I suspect when they do that, they’ll jack up the price of the online product to where I’m no longer getting a savings…

      1. Doug Ross

        “Of course, Doug thinks newspapers didn’t just go ahead and ditch the paper version back in the 90s because they’re too stupid. ”

        They were stupid for not recognizing what was coming and coming up with a long range transition plan versus hanging on desperately to the way things were and dying the death of 1000 cuts. There has been no plan at McClatchy or The State. It’s the car crash that you could see coming five miles down the road and not swerving an inch to avoid it.

        As I said, there were too many people in control who thought their product was a hardcopy paper, not the content inside of it.

        Sally’s example of trying to save someone’s job delivering papers is the kind of thinking that ends up in bankruptcy. The demand for the hardcopy paper has been going away at a steady rate for two decades. There is zero chance for it to change.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      As for “a glaring iPad screen”…

      Do you get migraines? My daughter does, and doesn’t like color video screens for that reason. She has one of those monochromatic Kindles.

      But I don’t think they glare at all. I think they’re just right. And if the screen is too bright or too dark, it’s only a second’s work to adjust it.

      I VASTLY prefer an electronic image to any other. I remember the first time I saw a color picture for the newspaper on a screen. I think it was the late 80s. The photo department was still using film, but they were starting to get wirephotos electronically, and working them digitally.

      I was mesmerized. Even as low-res as the screens were back then, the image was so much more ALIVE, more vibrant, than a print on paper.

      I was hooked right away.

      All of this points to the great irony of my having been laid off. I had always been on the leading edge of technological change, always one of the superusers who trained everyone else in the latest technology. Under my direction, the opinion pages were the first ones paginated (put together digitally rather than by pasting up paper type in the composing room). No one embraced the online delivery of news and opinion faster than I did. And I was the only person in the building with an active blog.

      I LOVED the changes, and was better at making use of them than most. I couldn’t wait for the next thing.

      But the layoffs weren’t done according to skills or adaptability to the brave new world. I just made too much money. So did Robert Ariail, on account of his talent. So we were for the high jump. Life is weird…

  4. jim catoe

    I still enjoy reading my “hard copy” of the paper; although I have cut back to three deliveries a week. I can usually read the pertinent content in less than five minutes . My wife and I will probably revert to an electronic version only in the new year.

    I had a paper route in Montgomery in the mid to late 50’s. At that time, the Montgomery Advertiser had two editions: one for the white folks and another for African-Americans. The only difference was the advertising content. As you probably know, Montgomery in that era was a city separated along racial lines. Therefore African -Americans could not patronize many white businesses and most white folks did not choose to patronize African-American businesses. Therefore the advertising was targeted by race.

    The Advertiser solved that problem by placing a red star in the upper right hand corner of the front page for the African-American paper edition. I had both white and African-American customers on my route near Sidney Lanier High School. On occasion. I would, in error, throw a “red star” paper in the yard of a white person. A tongue lashing was the usual result. Interesting times.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Interesting, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

      Speaking of newspapers and Jim Crow, here’s a story I remember from my days as a copy boy at the Commercial Appeal. Actually, it’s a story I heard at that time (early 70s) about something that was the case quite a few years BEFORE my time.

      One of the duties of the copy clerks was to go to the courthouse and the jail and pick up the “agate,” then bring it back and type it up. That meant arrest records and various court records, such as divorces, property transfers, etc. “Agate” was a reference to the tiny type in which that stuff ran in the paper. Actually, since this was the next thing to actual reporting, it was done by a SENIOR copy clerk. In my six months or so in that job, I only got to do the agate once, on a holiday when the senior guy was out. As I did that tedious typing on a manual typewriter, I thought I had hit the big time; I felt very important. It beat fetching coffee for reporters.

      Anyway, one of the old-timers told me this story.

      At some point in the past, if you identified a white person in print as a black person, you had a prima facie case of libel. You had no chance of beating it in court; the paper would just have to pay up. (Yes, Jim Crow was ugly.)

      One of the cops had a little racket going. He would deliberately identify a white person as black in an arrest record. The copy boy would pick it up and innocently put it in the paper. And of course in those days, journalists didn’t worry about using a person’s race when it was irrelevant to the story. If they had it, they put it in.

      Then the paper would be immediately sued, and would immediately settle and pay up. As I said, no point in fighting it.

      And the cop presumably would get a cut of the settlement…

      Of course, I’m remembering this as something that happened routinely, but I’m thinking it couldn’t have happened THAT often without someone realizing what was going on and putting a stop to it. But maybe the higher-ups were in on it…

      And of course, maybe the reason I KNOW about is the cop got caught….

      Anyway, at the time I heard it I just filed it away as another tale of how things were in the bad old days…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Not really. A prima facie case is one that is sufficient to establish a fact or raise a presumption unless disproved or rebutted. It’s basically a burden shifting idea.

          If you make a prima facie case of “X”, then the burden shifts to other party to prove “not X”. A prima facie case is sort of an incomplete one. One side has made a basic case of first impression, but the other side may not have even presented their facts to disprove or otherwise rebut the first.

          You’re more trying to describe what we would call an “airtight” case – a case that has no weak points.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Well, if you’re gonna get all technical on me.

            I tend to see it as meaning “on its face” (although I guess literally it’s more like “first face”) and then I take it to mean something so obvious that there’s no point fighting it.

            But thanks for setting me straight.

            You mariners and your patois. You are a reasonably civil, complaisant creature on dry land, Jack. But the moment you are afloat you become pragmatical and absolute – do this, do that, gluppit the prawling strangles, there…

            But the foremast jacks do like to hear the medicos discuss their case in the Latin…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I hadn’t heard about the separate editions, but I suppose it made a certain sort of perverse business sense, pre-integration.

      The main thing I know about how papers were different back before my day is that if you were black, you just didn’t get in the paper unless you were charged with a crime or something. No wedding announcements for black brides in those days. No black folks winning awards. No feature photos of people enjoying the sunshine or a festival or anything, unless they were white.

      This had an interesting effect later, during my own career. Since we had black folks in the paper the same as white ones, we’d get complaints from white people claiming that’s all we HAD in the paper anymore was black folks.

      If they were old enough, I suppose the change was jarring for them.

      You might call it sort of a Rorschach test for racism. If you felt like ALL the people in the paper were black, you had an interesting perception problem…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Of course, we’d get the opposite as well.

        A number of times, I got complaints from black readers when a black person would get in trouble of some kind, and we’d run the person’s mug shot with the story. We’d get accused of ONLY doing that because the guy was black. It didn’t matter that we regularly did it, regardless of race (assuming we HAD a mug of the person). We were told it was because we were racist.

        People tend to have selective perception. They see that which supports their preconceived notions, and nothing else…

  5. Doug T

    I’m kinda with Sally on this. I hate to end my paper delivery if it speeds up the demise of McClatchy. They can’t fund their pension obligations…no where near. I know the Charlotte Observer and maybe all McClatchy will stop Saturday delivery early next year
    The Observer is a ghost of what is was.

    What scares me most is who will do local area investigations…government, environmental, etc.
    Local TV news is unwatchable. Car wrecks and murders. So sad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You’re right on every point. And I’m afraid we’ve already lost most of that local watchdog role, here and across the country. All we have are the national media, which can still make a profit, drowning us in minutia about Washington while local and state politics fall down a hole.

      This is complicated, and as I just told Doug I no longer have access to the figures, but it seems to me dropping your print subscription is as likely to help McClatchy as hurt it. I expect them to force you to do so in the foreseeable future.

      But then, they could go bankrupt before that. They’re in a bad way.

      But even those much closer to it than I are unsure WHAT will happen.

  6. Doug Ross

    Brad – could you estimate what percentage of the $46 monthly cost could be tied back to the creation and distribution of the physical paper? If the online version is $10, that means at least 3/4 of the operating expense is going toward activities/materials unrelated to creating news content. Then we’d need to know how much ad revenue is explicitly coming from hardcopy papers vs. online.

    Someone in finance should do the math…

    1. Doug Ross

      I would expect the future model for newspapers will be a collection of small independent departments that produce a website with news, podcasts, video content, etc. each with its own revenue streams of advertising and subscriptions. Why not a 5 person SC Political news team? and a small team devoted to Sports? and one for local news? All under one umbrella company that manages the IT, finance, HR, functions?

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, I have no idea. The numbers have changed a lot since I had access to them. For instance, a lot more of the revenue comes from circulation — you and me paying for subscriptions — and a lot LESS goes to paying people. A LOT less.

      I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember these things, and I could be way off in my memory. But just ballpark… Let’s say close to 40 percent went to paying for people back in the day, salaries plus benefits and such. Something close to that went to production and distribution of the physical paper. Newsprint costs have been cut way back since then — find a paper from 20 years ago and compare it to one now — but not as much as people have been cutback, from what I see.

      As for revenues, way back when, only between about 15 and 20 percent of income was from subscriptions and single-copy sales. Basically, the paper ran on ad revenue. But since then, as ad revenue has plummeted, a larger portion is from circulation…

  7. Realist

    As a young boy, started selling papers on the street and to local businesses who did not subscribe to daily delivery. Worked the local jail and was allowed to go back to the cells and peddle the paper to the detainees. They treated me very well and usually sold 3 or 4. Got a regular route for the local paper and a morning route for the News & Observer. Had to collect for the local paper, good way to learn people and take care of the money earned.

    Took the local paper for over 40 years collectively but recently dropped home delivery and now have the digital only plus the digital NYT and WaPo, considering adding the WSJ for next year. Able to peruse each and pick and chose what is of interest. I guess the downside is the circulars for various business advertising that may affect local businesses if they were not available along with the printers who produce the paper advertisements. The digital versions certainly are a lot more environmentally friendly but the feel of the paper along with a cup of coffee was at one time my favorite time of the day.

    Now I take a short break from work, go to one of the digital versions and read up on events with more detail than the internet and broadcast version. The only problem I see at this point is the articles and reports in each of the digital newspapers is more and more a reprint of what is shown on internet news sites and home pages.

    There is still a sense of strong nostalgia for the days when we delivered papers while riding our bicycles in whatever the weather was at the time and avoiding the big dog in almost every neighborhood who had an intense dislike for the boy on the bicycle. Plus the cheapskates who tried to cheat us out of a couple of days claiming they never received their paper. Learned a lot about human character, good and bad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      My Dad had his 91st birthday the other day. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on his 13th birthday. He remembers helping a friend deliver extras of one of the local Washington papers — I don’t know whether it was the Post or the Star.

      It’s nice to have that kind of connection to history.

      I’m thinking of that for two reasons. One is that y’all are talking about paper carriers. The other is that I’m thinking about my father-in-law because it’s the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Germans’ Ardennes offensive. He was captured at the Bulge, and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. My Dad was too young for the war, but he did get to spread the news…

  8. Sally Huguley

    So it’s okay with a few commenters for some poor paper carrier to have his/her power cut off if corporations are not touched. Typical of today’s overly pro business climate, which is why federal hourly wage regulations aren’t raised, so perhaps people wouldn’t need second jobs.
    And no, Brad, I don’t get migraines, but print is vastly better for your brain. This is why many reading experts, including me, are dead set against elementary kids and younger having tablets substituted for print books. Reading and reading comprehension is a visual, audio and tactile learning experience that a kid can’t get from a screen. There’s a growing amount of peer-reviewed research stating screen time at a young age is altering brain development and not in a good way. Shortened attention spans is one result. However, school districts like to brag and parents are wowed when early childhood kids are learning from tablets. Just another example of research ignorance traded for good p.r.
    Plus, ever get brain buzz? I did while writing my dissertation when I spent hours before a screen, then couldn’t sleep although mentally exhausted. Again, plenty of peer reviewed research has established over stimulation of the brain due to too much screen exposure isn’t a good thing. Like the kids, we don’t know yet what impact this will have on the brain.
    Bottom line, I’ll keep my print newspaper, particularly since The State’s website is dismal.

    1. Doug Ross

      “So it’s okay with a few commenters for some poor paper carrier to have his/her power cut off if corporations are not touched.”

      Nobody said that. It’s not okay for people to lose their jobs. But it also not okay to keep doing a job that customers don’t want to pay for. The evidence is overwhelming that hardcopy newspapers are headed to extinction. Did anybody cry for the people who worked for companies that made pagers? or record players? or typewriters? It happens… and we’re all (mostly) better off for having the internet to replace newspapers. Businesses are about making profit, not providing jobs for life. Nevermind the benefit in terms of the environment to reduce the production, distribution, and the disposal of paper.

      If you deliver a newspaper, surely you can drive Uber. If the only skill you have is delivering papers ,that doesn’t mean society has to support it.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I saw someone using a pager just the other day. While in Memphis, we got together with some of my wife’s school friends. We gathered for breakfast at the home of one of them. Another of the friends is a physician, an infectious disease specialist. She just dropped by for a few minutes between hospitals, doing her rounds. She was interrupted a couple of times. At one point, I noticed her glancing at what looked to me like a beeper before getting up and walking across the room to make a phone call.

        I didn’t realize doctors still used those…

  9. Bill

    I remember finding a dead ,hardcopy subscriber,delivering at an apt complex in the 70’s(all piled up…)
    They don’t find dead,digital subscribers for years sometimes…

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