Is subscribing to a newspaper an essential part of good citizenship, particularly during a period when we are inundated with fake news? In a recent column, Chuck Plunkett, editorial-page editor for the Denver Post, argues yes.
Plunkett's piece, "Newspaper Subscriptions and the Social Contract," isn't simply an advertisement for the Post, whose staff has undergone substantial shrinkage in recent years due to the financial pressures impacting the print-journalism industry as a whole, as outlined in Alan Prendergast's feature article, "Can the Denver Post Survive Its Hedge-Fund Owners?" Rather than pitching his own paper, Plunkett talks in general terms about the importance of monetarily supporting original reporting on the local as well as national level.
"If I tire of a subscription, I switch to another paper," he writes. "Obviously, I want to keep up the kind of market competition that keeps journalists on their toes. Such a practice lets me feel like I’m holding up my end of the social contract. If all consumers of the news followed such a practice, the industry would be a little healthier."
Such topics will undoubtedly arise at "Restoring Trust in Media," a panel discussion on the DU campus that will co-star Plunkett. The get-together, presented by Colorado Press Women, takes place on Saturday, February 4; get more information below. The following Q&A offers a preview of sorts, with Plunkett discussing his motivation for writing the "Social Contract" column, the responses he's received from readers and colleagues, and his views about whether anything can be done to convince today's information consumers that they should open their pocketbooks.
Westword: In your column, you expressed your reticence about bringing up the topic of paying for newspaper subscriptions. What are some of the minefields represented by the subject from your perspective?
Chuck Plunkett: I first proposed writing this column several years ago. I used to be a member of the editorial page in the 2009-2010 era, and coming up along Christmastime, I figured I'd do something like this. You remember what it was like back then. The Rocky had just closed. We had just brought on some of the Rocky staff. And talking about subscriptions at the time had been a really big deal. At the Post, we were trying really hard to keep as many Rocky subscribers as possible. That's why we brought on Lynn Bartels and Vincent Carroll and all those talented folks. But the answer I got from my editor at the time, Dan Haley, was, "People are already subscribing. We don't need to call attention to ourselves. It might look like we're being opportunistic."
I pretty much bought it. I didn't really argue it. It seemed reasonable enough. But over the years, it just kind of kept sticking with me. I kept thinking, this point of view ought to be out there, and we don't do a good enough job of sticking up for ourselves. And watching what just happened, with the election cycle and the fake news and what have you.... I don't want to be reactionary and go, "The poor media, the poor media," because I think we've always been criticized by our readers. But I had this thought that part of the reason our readers are mad at us right now is because newspapers have downsized. They've cut the newsrooms, they've cut the print product. People see it in their lives, they see it when they pick up their Denver Post in the morning, they see it when they pick up their Dallas Morning News, they see it when they pick up whatever paper that's local and not a national paper — and to some extent, that's true of the national papers, too. And to some extent, readers feel like we're letting them down — like we're not there for them like we used to be.
Another phrase that you used in the piece was "the Great Decline." How would you describe that? And for you, when did the Great Decline start?
Back around when the Rocky closed. For me, that's when I noticed it the most. I've said over the years that the real maturation of the Internet cycle, when we first really started to get hit and face these problems, was actually good for newspapers. Big newsrooms, like the Denver Post when I first got there — you had to be careful that people weren't letting their beats become calcified. We didn't want beats to turn into ivory towers and have them say things like, "I could never do that. I can't possibly be bothered helping you with that minimal story you're working on" — that kind of stuff. There was a certain amount of bloat and a certain amount of fat that had accumulated at papers because we'd been so accustomed to being so healthy for so long.
A certain amount of those market realities and market forces were really good for us. But when I started seeing the Denver Post, particularly, go through the changes it's gone through over the past couple of years, where we'll win a Pulitzer Prize one year and the next year we'll reduce our staff by 20 percent, that's the Great Decline in my mind.
In between that 2009-2010 period you mentioned and today, the Post tried an experiment with a paywall. That was temporarily set aside during the Aurora theater-shooting trial but wasn't re-erected afterward. What did the paywall do and what didn't it do in terms of either raising revenue or getting people to understand that good journalism doesn't come for free?
I'd hoped the paywall would work. I'd hoped the paywall would start a community conversation and provide some stability for us. But it never really seemed that it worked out from where I sat in the newsroom. Back then, when I sat on the politics desk, it seemed like it was too easy to get around it, it was too porous, and it just kind of angered people. It kind of seemed that once we had a good opportunity to do something else, we took it.
There are certainly papers around the country that started with a paywall early and held it, and it works for them. My hometown paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has an aggressive paywall and always has, and it seems that it works for them in their market. In the Denver market, the argument has been that it's a lot more diverse and there are a lot more startups and a lot of aggressive news channels that aren't primarily print-based that can also make inroads if you try to put up a paywall. And our company has believed, like a lot of media companies, that if you're successful in digital advertising, that will be the wave of the future. But coming back to the column, it references a recent study that now, digital advertising is no longer working for us. The main beneficiaries of digital advertising are Google and Facebook, by almost 60 percent. And that's growing. It seems this belief we've had that digital ads are going to save us isn't materializing at all like we thought. It's very scary.
As you suggest, there was a theory for quite a long time that as print revenues declined, they'd be offset by the growth of digital revenues. That has never come to fruition. Is the subscription-based approach the only one you can see that can prevent the declines we're seeing in so many media organizations?
I think it would help. I'm not the finance guy. I don't know if you can make the argument that just subscriptions alone would do the trick. But if you have a large body of subscribers, you have a sellable product. You still have something the print advertisers are going to want to have. It's demonstrable. It's hard numbers — people paying money to have your stuff. It just seems to be a more healthy model. If you're going to say you like the news and you're a news junkie and all those kinds of things, you've got to realize that it costs something. People pay to have cell phones, they pay to have TV. I can't believe the money people pay to have television. And if you elevate it a little bit, we pay for novels, we pay for fine things like poetry or going to the movies and whatnot. These people are professionals, too. So shouldn't you find a way in your life, if it helps inform your existence and defines who you are, to support it one way or the other?
Going back to your question about resistance to writing a column like that, I didn't want to say that people should feel they have to support the Denver Post. I tried to be careful to say, "Support your local paper — and if your local paper isn't doing it for you, support another local paper. Keep the market forces going." It just seemed like one of those good, existential topics to raise.
You mentioned earlier the fake-news avalanche that we had this past year and questions about whether journalism was holding officials to account in the ways we'd like. Do you feel that what happened in 2016 is the best advertisement for why we need to support and maintain a healthy journalism industry?
Yeah, and there are some encouraging reports on that front. After the election, when those fake-news stories started to circulate and stories about hacking began to come out, subscriptions to the New York Times were going up; they were getting several thousand requests a day for new subscriptions. So there was a bit of a wake-up call, and it was one of the reasons I felt that finally writing that column after all these years made some sense.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the column, both from readers in general and your colleagues?
It's been good. Initially there were a lot of people who were very thankful and glad I did it. Of course, you get detractors who'll detract for any reason. And then there were people who made some good arguments. They said, "I've tried to remain a good Denver Post subscriber, but I've had problems with delivery," or, "The paper keeps getting smaller" — those kinds of arguments. I can't really fault people who realize the newsroom is getting smaller and feel it doesn't really matter that they've been subscribing for all these years. That's an inevitable part of this whole Great Decline.
Do you think newspapers have done a good enough job thanking those folks who have continued to subscribe and put their money where their mouth is and letting them know their efforts are appreciated?
It's one of the things that's been gratifying being the editor of the editorial page. It's a whole different shift. When I went back there, it was like I had seen the print product downgraded, and yet the opinion pages, especially on Sunday, the Perspective section, is still six pages without ads. It's like this nice little island of sanity. If you subscribe to the print product and you care about public policy and politics in Colorado, the Perspective section is still quite good. And it's been deeply gratifying to communicate with people who still care about the Perspective section. That's been one way I've been able to say, "Thank you for reading us" — communicating back and forth with the many people who comment about what we do in Perspective.
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On the flip side of that, I don't think we do a good enough job of acknowledging our readers. I do think it would be better for us if, when they're on the phone or send us an e-mail and we realize they're a subscriber, we go out of our way to say, "We appreciate that. We appreciate you very much."
We tend to think about subscribing as generational. It can be hard to find someone in their twenties who subscribes to the print newspaper or even has a digital subscription. Is there hope, in your view, that that can be turned around, or is the horse out of the barn?
Millennials are just like other generations, in that many of them are intelligent and plugged in and care about the world that they live in. And a lot of them care very deeply. There's no reason they couldn't realize that subscriptions are part of their obligation, their duty under the social contract. I used to talk about this with some of the millennials in the newsroom. We'd say, "You know, they like vinyl. They like old cameras. They like old, weird stuff like that. Maybe we could get them hooked on print again. Like, it's all retro and cool and neat-o." [He laughs.]
"Restoring Trust in Media" gets under way at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 4, in Room 286 of Sturm Hall, on the University of Denver campus, 2000 East Asbury Avenue. Joining Plunkett with be Lynn Schofield Clark, chair of DU's Department of Media, Film & New Media, UNC journalism and mass communications professor Lee Anne Peck, CU College of Media professor Elizabeth Skewes, and Mark Newton, a high-school educator and president of the Journalism Education Association. (Disclosure: Newton was my classmate at Grand Junction High School.) Admission is free. Click for more information.