There’s an old industry joke — I’ve heard our publisher, Tom Hutson, riff on it — that goes something like this: “The best possible business model would be to find just one rich guy to pay us a $1 million subscription and print the news just for him. That would really lower our overhead.”
I’ve been thinking about newspaper costs a lot lately.
Now let me preface this by allaying some fears. I’m not in charge of the money. Nothing I write here has any effect on reality. So far as I know, the price of our newspapers is staying put at $1 per issue (or lower when you have a subscription).
But here’s the deal: I think newsmakers have done ourselves a huge disservice by keeping prices relatively low.
We’ve been at $1 for what, eight or nine years? Before that, our cost was 75 cents. Inflation in the United States has pushed costs up 38.2 percent since 2000 (82.1 percent since 1990 and 188.8 percent since 1980) but newspaper prices have remained pretty stagnant.
In many ways, while keeping customers fairly happy, I think that trend has devalued the news in peoples’ eyes. If the cover price is $1, then it must just be worth $1, right? The psychological impact, I fear, is that low pricing has made the news something nearly worthless, trash to be tossed or ignored.
If you haven’t been to a convenience store lately, you know every other company has pushed up prices. I slipped in for a gallon of milk the other day and couldn’t help noticing the grossly inflated price tags on smallish items (and I’m only 35; I can’t imagine what these prices look like to folks in their 60s and 70s):
• The milk was $3.49.
• A Snickers bar would have set me back $1.69.
• A 20-ounce Coke was $1.88.
• A Star Wars Hot Wheels car was priced at $3.69.
• A 3D bookmark was $4.99.
• Six chocolate-glazed donuts were priced at $4.49.
• A 24-pack of Crayola crayons was $2.49.
• A bottle of Tylenol rang up at $13.95
• A jar of peanut butter was $4.47.
Look, I know how much work goes into our newspapers. By all rights, they should be $12 a copy.
The reason they aren’t is advertising — but that’s a frontier that is rapidly changing. Print media ad dollars took a 10 percent hit in 2014, and local papers suffered 11.6 percent, according to Kantar Media. Radio advertising cash dropped and the top 10 advertisers overall in the U.S. slowed their marketing budgets by 4.2 percent. Television did see a surge, but for the most part advertisers are going digital and putting money into mobile.
That puts the little guy (hey, that’s us!) with a local market in a tough spot.
So if you’re a millionaire and would like to talk about an exclusive patronage deal, I’m sure I could broker a meeting. If you’re regular-naire like me, you might want to consider how much local news is really worth. Want to know about proposed tax hikes? We’re on it. Want to see your kids’ in the paper? We’ve got you covered. Want to be informed when you head to the polls? Know why the fire engines rolled out? Know where your tax money is being spent? We’re here for you.
Because even if it’s worth $12, we only charge $1.