But the past several years have revealed that by doing well in one’s backyard, one can support a staff large enough to cover it ambitiously.
The Los Angeles Times has more than doubled digital subscriptions in the past two years, to 450,000. The Boston Globe, which says it makes enough digital revenue to support its newsroom, increased its digital subscribers in the last two and a half years to 226,000 from 100,000, according to figures provided by the newspaper, which John W. Henry bought from The New York Times Company in 2013. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s digital-only subscriptions grew 28 percent last year, to north of 60,000.
“We don’t need to go outside our area to reach a really nice and sustainable piece of profitability,” said Grant Moise, the president and publisher of The Dallas Morning News. With 176 journalists, “The News is at least two times bigger than any TV station, radio station or local competitor,” he added. “We need to own that.”
Not everyone is bullish about digital subscriptions’ ability to save local newspapers. Two media scholars, Iris Chyi of the University of Texas at Austin and Sun Ho Jeong of Ewha Womans University in Seoul, studied 20 metro dailies across the country and found that median digital subscribers nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019 and then roughly doubled again between 2019 to the third quarter of 2020 before plateauing. Meanwhile, median print subscriptions fell by more than half from 2016 to 2021, they said, which, combined with digital subscription rates that were roughly six times cheaper than print ones, resulted in many newspapers’ losing subscription revenue overall.
“Just because print is declining doesn’t mean digital is the salvation,” Ms. Chyi said.
Yet while Ms. Chyi noted that low digital rates — particularly introductory ones for as little as 25 cents per week — imposed a ceiling on revenue, many newspapers have advanced to higher rates. The Globe was a pioneer in pricing its digital subscription as a premium product, charging $6.93 a week, which amounts to 99 cents a day, as early as 2015.
Also, dozens of digital-only local news upstarts have cropped up across the country. Freed of many costs associated with legacy newspapers — real estate, print distribution, larger newsrooms — they are designed to reap an overwhelming proportion of their income from readers, either in donations or subscriptions.