by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
The wheels continue to fall off the rickety wagon known as The Buffalo News. In fact, the decline is gaining speed.
I’m told the staff has been informed by management that daily print circulation is down to about 35,000. Last time I reported, based on 2022 numbers, it was 56,000. That’s down from a peak of 310,000 in the mid ’90s. Digital subscriptions are another 35,000. (More on that later.)
There are a variety of reasons for the precipitous decline in print circulation, starting with changing news consumption habits. Nearly nine in 10 Americans get their news from digital platforms; only one in three turn to print.
And here’s the really scary part: among the under 30 crowd, only 3 percent prefer print.
There’s not a whole lot The News can do about this. It’s societal and generational. But The News has made the problem that much worse with several self-inflicted wounds, largely engineered by managers at the corporate level, far from Buffalo.
The paper has aggressively raised the price of its print edition since Lee Enterprises bought the paper 3½ years ago. The rack rate for seven-day home delivery is now $1,300 a year, which is more than it costs to get The New York Times ($1,040). New print subscribers can get The News for $26 — for the first month — while The Times charges $10 a month for the first year.
Adding insult to injury, The News has tacked on surcharges in the past year or so, citing high gas prices, among other factors. That has ticked off many subscribers, converting some of them to former subscribers.
Price increases aren’t the half of it, however. The paper’s local coverage — the bedrock of regional dailies like The News — is a shadow of what it once was. The decline began years ago, long before Lee took over, and has accelerated since.
Suburban bureaus have been shuttered. Zoned editions are long gone. Ditto for the investigative reporting team. Arts and cultural coverage has been gutted. Suburban, too.
But there’s sports. Lots and lots of sports. Especially football.
I tracked the number of football stories The News published the month of September and compared it with staff-written local and business stories. The News published an average of of 9.4 staff-written local and business stories a day. That compares with an average of 6.5 football stories a day, including coverage of Bills, UB, high school and the NFL and college via wire service stories.
In other words, two football stories for every three written about our local community and economy.
With the hockey season approaching, in October I started tracking coverage of the Sabres and other hockey stories, in addition to football. Through Monday, the tally is 86 football and hockey stories vs. 83 staff-written local and business stories.
This emphasis on sports at the expense of local reporting is not only a disservice to the community and an abrogation of the paper’s First Amendment responsibilities, but a doomed strategy. I remember reading the results of reader surveys back when I worked at The News; one of the least-read sections of the paper was sports. Half the paper’s readers didn’t pick it up.
I understand that sports stories get The News website a lot of clicks, but basing your news coverage on clickbait is a losing proposition. People buy the paper first and foremost for coverage of their community and issues that impact them. Instead, Lee Enterprises gives us The Buffalo Sporting News.
The News was once the dominant news outlet in town. Its reduced audience now puts it a distant third behind WGRZ and WIVB, which are providing viewers more programming, not less.
Channel 2’s nine daily newscasts attract an average viewership of about 275,000 households, according to rating services. The average daily audience at Channel 4 is about 270,000. Heck, even Channel 7, in the basement of TV ratings here, has a larger daily audience (about 105,000) than The News (7o,000, print and web). And the TV numbers don’t include web traffic.
This isn’t a great surprise. Research shows news consumers in the Buffalo market prefer television over print as their primary source of news, 48 percent to 13 percent.
The decision to shift the print production of the paper to Cleveland starting Oct. 1 has made a bad situation worse. Deadlines have been moved up to mid- to late afternoon, meaning that a lot of stories you read are two days old. Back in the day, I can recall filing stories as late as 9:30-10 p.m.
Early deadlines are especially bad for sports coverage. Most game coverage of the Bills you used to read in print on Monday you now read on Tuesday. Coverage of Sabres games also lags by a day. And remember, print readers are paying a premium for the product.
The News is counting on readers turning to its website, but that’s not going well.
Digital subscriptions are up to about 35,000. But the growth isn’t even coming close to stemming the hemorrhaging of print customers.
To survive, The News, and other daily newspapers, need to grow a robust subscriber base for its online edition. A drop in print circulation isn’t necessarily a calamity if subscribers are switching to digital. But my back-of-the-envelope math tells me that at least two-thirds of print subscribers — and probably more — are simply dropping the paper altogether.
The paper’s 35,000 digital subscribers compares unfavorably with dailies that have been successful growing their online audience. The Boston Globe has more than 225,000 digital subscribers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune some 100,000, while retaining more than 200,000 daily print subscribers. That’s what happens when you still have a robust newsroom staff of 230.
The growth in The News’ digital subscriber base also falls far short of what’s needed to sustain the newsroom. In 2018, then Editor Mike Connelly wrote in an internal memo to News management: “At an average of $10 a month, it takes 83,000 subscribers to cover the cost of our newsroom.”
I’m not unsympathetic to the challenges that Lee and other newspaper publishers are facing. Reader habits have changed and the business model that sustained daily newspapers for the better part of the century is toast. Something has to give.
But the strategy of charging readers more and giving them less, of covering sports better than the community, is not a path to sustainability.
A few publishers are bucking the trend by investing — not disinvesting — in their product. Here’s what the Nieman Lab recently reported about the growth plans for The Atlanta Constitution-Journal.
The legacy media company is looking to grow its roughly 60,000 digital subscribers to 500,000 by the end of 2026. Publisher and president Andrew Morse believes that implementing a “New York Times playbook” to “super-serve” specific audiences in Atlanta, Georgia, and the broader South and Southeast will get the company to that number, and to profitability …
Morse said he hears from local leaders about the growing local news vacuum in communities across Georgia, and he believes the AJC can help fill this void …
To drive this expansion, the AJC plans to hire about 100 people — expanding the newsroom and adding positions across product development, technology, design, analytics, and marketing.
Lee Enterprises is going the opposite direction here in Buffalo - and elsewhere. It's following the playbook of chains owned by hedge funds. Cut expenses by reducing staff and suppressing wages and benefits, outsource jobs whenever possible, sell off real estate and other assets, and in the case here, strong-arm unions to seize their pension funds.
The News put its building at Washington and Scott streets up for sale and moved what remained of its staff to offices in Larkinville earlier this year. More recently it sold its total market coverage business to Buffalo Newspress. The paper is now printed three hours away — and longer when it snows — and its printing presses are destined for the scrap heap.
The newsroom staff, which topped 200 when I joined The News in 1986 and stood at 145 when I left in 2011, has shrunk to 65. The talent drain continues.
In February, veteran political reporter Bob McCarthy, investigative reporter Matt Spina and lifestyles writer Susan Martin took buyouts, followed by rock critic Jeff Miers in April. Deputy Managing Editor Denise Jewell Gee left in May. The design desk was dismantled in June when that work was outsourced (resulting in a poorly redesigned paper). In the past couple of weeks, reporters Lou Michel retired and Caitlin Dewey left to free-lance.
If the paper has a future - if any daily newspaper has a future - it’s digital. But The News' website is a mess, using Lee’s cookie-cutter template. Frustrated with poor home delivery, I canceled the paper last year but had to renew because, all too often, I couldn’t find stories on the website. (In my business, I have to know what the competition is up to.)
The News still has a stable of good reporters, but there are fewer and fewer of them. There is no cavalry on the ridge, only corporate bean-counters.
Readers notice what’s going on. There’s nary a person I speak with when the subject comes up who isn’t either sad or indignant about what’s happened to the paper. They’re voting with their feet — and their dollars.
A good daily newspaper is vital to a community’s well-being. We’ve lost ours, and the prospects of getting it back are nil, at least under the present ownership. Don’t expect Lee to sell, however. There’s still a little meat left to be picked off the bones.