Pittsburgh is now the largest city in America without a daily newspaper.
After many iterations, Pittsburgh’s last remaining daily, the 232-year-old Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, cut its print production schedule from seven days a week to five, eliminating physical copies of the Tuesday and Saturday editions, starting this weekend.
The news organization said it is looking to reposition itself as a more digitally focused outlet, amid widespread economic contractions facing newspapers.
PG Executive Editor David Shribman wrote that eliminating two print issues allows it to focus more on “undertaking a full-throttle commitment to the digital delivery of news…” In a subsequent letter to readers and subscribers, the PG said print editions would be eliminated on Tuesdays and Saturdays, but it will continue publishing e-editions on those days.
Shribman told The Incline that the production shift won’t coincide with newsroom layoffs now. He was unaware what it might mean on the production end, referring additional questions to the Post-Gazette’s chief marketing officer, Tracey DeAngelo, whose office declined comment when reached by The Incline.
Following a tumultuous year at the paper, the print production shift has engendered further criticism of ownership from readers and representatives of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing roughly 150 PG newsroom employees. (The Guild has been in contract negotiations with the paper’s owners at the Toledo, Ohio-based Block Communications Inc. for more than a year.)
“The Newspaper Guild is disappointed that those who covet the printed product will be underserved,” Guild president and PG enterprise reporter Mike Fuoco said via email. He’s been more direct on Twitter, calling this approach “an insane, misguided plan” and “the beginning of the end.”
But is it?
The decline of dailies
Other papers have cut print days already — and some more aggressively.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review stopped printing in 2016, leaving the Post-Gazette as the last daily standing in the city limits. Trib Total Media, its ownership company, also stressed a desire to focus on digital operations and a growing digital audience share. In the process, roughly 20 percent of its workforce was laid off. The remaining staff now focuses on daily Tribune-Review editions in Greensburg and Tarentum, TribLive.com, and weeklies throughout the region.
Trib Total Media CEO Jennifer Bertetto pointed to the company’s popular sports coverage networks and a new e-commerce platform in insisting her company’s diversification strategy is working after shuttering a site, upgrūv, in June.
“We [also] have a publisher’s resource called Media Rack, and every week more and more publishers are downloading our content for reproduction in their papers,” Bertetto told The Incline at the time. “It really is an exciting time here.”
She added, “People think the industry is dying because we continue to tell them it is. I beg to differ. We are simply an industry that requires a new mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit to find new ways forward…” She did not respond to repeated follow-up requests for comment.
But for newspapers, the shift to digital is far from a magic bullet, with digital ad sales bringing in a fraction of the money print ad sales did and little to no industry consensus on how to charge readers — or whether to charge them at all — for the news products they consume.
The Post-Gazette has an estimated weekday print circulation of 150,000, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media. The number doubles on Sundays. On the digital end, the Post-Gazette counted somewhere between 6,700 and 8,500 digital non-replica subscribers in 2018 — that means subscribers to the paper’s online content — and roughly 21,000 digital replica subscribers — that means e-editions or online replicas of the hard-copy paper — according to alliance data.
“That number tells you how many people are signed up for digital replicas but doesn’t show you how many are opening them,” Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst and author, said of the PG’s e-edition subscribers.
Additionally, re-educating a readership unaccustomed to getting their news from digital sources takes time — and often lots of it. An ad campaign launched by the PG in the last week shows newspaper readers pushing back against the digital news tide and the paper’s growing digital emphasis. “PGe and PG NewsSlide? Who the [bleep] needs ‘em?” says one in a televised clip. The campaign has raised eyebrows on social media and drawn criticism from at least one PG reader.
Block Communications Chairman Allan Block told KDKA-TV that these ads are the first part of a multi-week campaign that will be better understood later.
“The problem here is if you’re going to flip a switch and move from print to digital, you need to have prepared the path for readers and advertisers,” Doctor added of the plan. “I don’t think the Post-Gazette gave enough lead time. I’m talking about a process that takes years, not weeks.”
The Post-Gazette formally announced that it would cut print days in June. But it’s spent recent years pushing its e-edition (PGe, as the irate woman calls it in the ad) and website, and launching apps like NewsSlide.
Meanwhile, cutting print days to boost digital production has been endorsed elsewhere. Martin Langeveld, a former newspaper publisher in New England, wrote a 2015 piece for Nieman Labs in which he urged more papers to consider it. “… People running a daily printed newspaper should be constructing the intermediate model, in which the paper is still printed once a week (or maybe twice, or three times), and subscribers are willing to pay for the combination print/online package,” Langeveld wrote, describing a gradual weaning. “I think that’s a realistic goal to aim for, and any publisher is derelict in their duties if they haven’t worked out the numbers.”
‘A digital divide’
When the Times-Picayune in New Orleans announced it would cut its print schedule to three days a week in 2012, community groups and leaders called it the breaking of an “implicit contract” or covenant between a paper and its readership. (The Times-Picayune and Patriot-News are owned by Advance Publication.) And while Times-Picayune content was still made available to readers online — and now for free as the ownership company looked to build audience share to then drive-up digital ad sales — Lolis Eric Elie, a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker, pointed out a relevant racial disparity.
“Subscribers to high-speed internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in higher income brackets…” Elie wrote in a 2012 editorial. (New Orleans still has a daily newspaper, The Advocate, which launched after the Times-Picayune cut back to three days a week.)
It’s a similar story in Pittsburgh, where 27.6 percent of black families do not have broadband internet at home compared to only 12.2 percent of white families, according to a 2017 report on equity indicators commissioned by the city.
“There is a digital divide, unfortunately,” said Brian Cook, president of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, adding, “I would hope people who either can’t afford it or who don’t have access to the internet will utilize local libraries and take a look at the Post-Gazette and other media organizations online that way.”
Suzanne M. Thinnes, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh spokesperson, said “patrons should not hit a paywall when accessing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via the computer terminals at our library locations.”
Cook said he’s also interested in whether the Post-Gazette will “lessen its fees for digital subscriptions” as a way of drawing more readers and/or improving access.
Spokespeople for the Post-Gazette did not respond to repeated inquiries. It’s also unclear if the Post-Gazette plans to adjust its print subscription rate with two fewer print editions being produced each week — though that recent letter to subscribers indicates it will not. An all-access digital PG subscription — with a 20 percent-off discount — costs $129.48 a year, according to the paper’s website. There’s also a monthly option for $11.96.
Seniors are also more likely to feel the void of no daily newspaper, both because of lower levels of internet connectivity and more ingrained news habits.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, pointed to McKeesport, where the closure of the 131-year-old local paper in 2015 left older residents describing a sense of isolation and communal detachment.
“The seniors there said they missed the Daily News and said, ‘We don’t know friends have died until they’ve been buried in the ground for a week.’ They didn’t have access to computers, and they felt they’d missed out to some extent,” Conte said. “And that will happen with the Post-Gazette … some people, on days without a printed newspaper, won’t have access.”
If there’s a silver lining to be found here, Conte thinks it’s in the growing pluralism of Pittsburgh’s media market.
“…the whole Pittsburgh media ecosystem is really evolving and changing. Where it used to be you had a few dominant media players that set the conversation for the city, what you see now is a multitude of voices and different outlets serving niche topics and readerships,” said Conte, who formerly worked for Trib Total Media.
He added, “It’s been a long process and a long decline, but it’s better that way because it’s giving all the other outlets a chance to grow up. If we suddenly lost the Trib and Post-Gazette overnight, it would be devastating. But the fact that it’s been a slow shift has allowed for a transition to take place, and we’re seeing new outlets coming online as a result.”
Without a daily newspaper to turn to, Cook said he also expects some people will go to TV stations or terrestrial radio stations for coverage. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Nielsen sees an increase in the Big 3 [TV networks] here because of this.”
Regardless, the era of the daily newspaper in Pittsburgh has ended. Doctor said Pittsburgh is the biggest U.S. city without a seven-day-a-week print publication now. More unusual, in Conte’s opinion, is the fact that at Pittsburgh recently had two, given the market’s size.
“It was much more unusual that two dailies were competing here head-to-head and were privately owned and were willing to duke it out and lose money,” Conte said by phone. “That was the unusual part. The fact we’re now moving to a point where we will not have a printed paper every day of the week is much more common across the country and will continue to be more common.”
‘Print is going away.’
Whether the reduction in print days will shore up the Post-Gazette’s finances is another matter entirely.
“There are some obvious expense savings in pressroom and distribution costs when you are staffing for five days rather than seven,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute. “And savings on paper, too.”
A letter sent by the Post-Gazette to funeral home directors earlier this month linked Canadian newsprint tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump and the resulting rise in newsprint costs to the paper’s decision to cut issues, according to TribLive.
Edmonds added of similar hurdles facing news companies in the shift to digital, “…neither digital ads nor paid digital subscriptions match in generating revenue. I do anticipate more papers [cutting print days] over the next several years, on their way, perhaps, to keeping Sunday print but sending readers to the digital sites the rest of the time.” Print-day cuts can also backfire, Edmonds cautioned. “Some think it sends a negative message to loyal print readers: ‘You don’t really need us every day.’”
Almost two years after print cuts at papers in Harrisburg, New Orleans and elsewhere, Randy Siegel, chief executive for Advance Local, told Poynter that web traffic was up along with digital ad sales at the relevant properties. Both Advance Publications and Block Communications are private companies, and like most private companies, they don’t release revenue or profit numbers.
BCI, governed by a board of directors comprised primarily of members of the Block family, has operations in cable television/broadband, commercial telecommunications, newspaper publishing and television broadcasting across the country. According to Moody’s, BCI derived 69 percent of its fiscal year revenue in 2015 from its cable television and telecommunication operations, 21 percent from newspaper holdings and 10 percent from television broadcasting.
And while BCI has certainly lost money on its newspaper holdings, the company itself is hydra-headed and highly profitable overall, according to Fuoco, who cited annual profits north of $100 million over the last 12 years.
“The thing about the Post-Gazette,” said Sally Davidow, communications director for The NewsGuild-CWA, “is that the company has other investments that are quite profitable. And the employees at the Post-Gazette say that when the PG was profitable and other portions of the company were not, it was the PG that subsidized them while they clawed their way to profitability and that’s not happening in reverse now.”
In announcing the upcoming print production changes at the Post-Gazette, the company said it’s “lost circulation and advertising revenue every year for the past decade, producing annual losses throughout that period.”
But the paper’s owners say they plan forge ahead, focusing on digital products and even “offer[ing] local businesses the ability to make retail sales directly through their advertisements in PG news products.”
“Why are we doing this?” Allan Block asked rhetorically in speaking with Shribman for the latter’s piece. “Print is going away. If you project even five years into the future you cannot imagine there’s a print business that will be vibrant nationally or internationally. We have to acknowledge what is happening. […] We’re going to give this business the best college try. What we are doing is re-inventing the PG for the future.’’
Editor’s note: Reporter/curator Colin Deppen previously worked for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.