Slow death of the two-newspaper town
There are just a handful of cities left where two papers still publish
May 26, 2016
By the editors of Media Life
This article is part of a Media Life series “Reinventing the American Newspaper.” Click here to read other stories in the series.
York, Pennsylvania, has been a two-paper town for more than 100 years.
The Daily Record has a robust social media presence and has always leaned further left than its rival. It also has one of the best Penn State football beat writers, Frank Bodani, in the state.
The Dispatch offers investigative reporting on statewide issues such as the heroin epidemic and strong editorials calling for action on education and the state budget impasse. It didn’t publish pictures on its front page until the 1980s.
Many people in town subscribe to both papers, and though there have been rumors over the years of a merger of the two, it’s never come close to happening.
York has become the exception to what’s becoming a more and more hardfast rule in newspapering in the 21st century—that cities can only sustain one newspaper.
The unforgiving nature of this rule was underscored once again earlier this month, when The Tampa Tribune shut down abruptly, hours after being acquired by The Tampa Bay Times, its crosstown rival.
The question is how long cities like York, one of the country’s smallest two-paper towns, can sustain them both.
There are fewer than a dozen two-paper towns left in the United States, according to John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University and creator of the Two-Daily Town blog.
He notes a number of two-paper towns have become one-paper towns in the past decade, including Seattle and Denver.
“Some cities, such as New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., seem more secure than others,” he says.
“But the pattern of the smaller-circulation paper folding (Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Tampa Tribune) will likely continue in other cities.”
Towns with two thriving newspapers tend to have strong leadership behind the papers. Population isn’t necessarily a factor. Though certainly you can find more people in a place as big as New York City to buy papers, an older population may support dueling papers in smaller cities.
York, for instance, has just 44,000 residents.
“Size is definitely a factor in two-daily towns, but not an absolute. Trenton, New Jersey, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Crawfordsville, Indiana, all have two dailies,” says Carroll.
“What might make the difference is healthy local ownership that can compete with corporate ownership.”
Advertisers have always benefited from having two papers in town. One is often more upscale than the other, giving advertisers options where to focus their buys. They also usually have starkly different politics. And, of course, the newspapers will be competing against each other for advertising.
“If both papers are healthy, that could mean more advertising competition and lower ad rates in one or both,” Carroll says.
But at a time when more people are getting their news online, having two papers simply isn’t sustainable in most towns. There’s not enough advertising or readership to support both.
And forget about launching new papers to turn towns from one paper to two. The small handful that have launched over recent years have struggled mightily, for the most part.
“Two words: Aaron Kushner. His ill-fated Los Angeles Register lasted all of five months. It’s very hard to imagine any investor interested in starting a major metro from scratch,” Carroll says.
For York residents, it’s hard to imagine the town without its two distinct newspapers. But in this age of smartphones-first, it’s difficult to imagine this two-paper utopia will last much longer.
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