Newspapers are a business and, like any business, they need customers.
Specifically, newspapers need paying customers, people who subscribe to the newspaper for home or online delivery or pay for it at a convenience store or vending box.
For a while now there haven’t been enough paying customers for newspapers, from the largest to smallest, to maintain staffing levels. Partly this is because newspapers have been letting people access much or all of their content online without subscribing, and the advertisements there generate a fraction of the revenue of those in the printed paper.
Some in the industry are worried their readers are forgetting that they need newspapers.
The Minnesota Newspaper Association, for example, recently had a statewide “whiteout” campaign to give readers a sense of what they would lose without newspapers. During Minnesota Newspaper Week in mid-August, several hundred newspapers in the state left their front pages blank.
Such worries look overblown, even from the simple perspective of gathering and communicating information.
As columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. put it in The Wall Street Journal recently, “The media are absolutely indispensable to a modern society’s functioning. … The quantity of information that must be circulated and absorbed to fulfill our roles as consumers, workers, taxpayers and citizens is almost beyond calculation.”
Sure, the internet has made it possible for people to get some of that information from providers other than their local newspaper and to find some on their own. But there’s no question they need help with the gathering, prioritizing and presenting of content — and whoever provides that help will need to be paid for their time and effort, either directly through a subscription of some sort or via advertisements that provide an adequate revenue stream.
But I think people’s need for newspapers is deeper than this. In fact, I think it’s as deep as human needs get.
The great psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm identified eight “existential needs” of people because they have self-awareness, reason and imagination. They are relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, a sense of identity, a frame of orientation, excitation/stimulation, unity and effectiveness.
Newspapers can and should make significant contributions to fulfilling several of these. They serve relatedness by promoting care, respect and knowledge about others. Newspapers can help people balance their conformity to a group with their individuality, which is the essence of a sense of identity.
Fromm said a frame of orientation derives from understanding the world and our place in it, which is practically a central goal of newspapers. When you want to put down roots in a community, the first thing to do is subscribe to the local newspaper. And by keeping people informed and giving them a voice in the community, newspapers help people be effective and make a difference.
People and the communities they form need newspapers and other forms of news media for full and healthy lives — the same reason ultimately that those businesses need customers.
Not just any newspapers, however. They need ones that perform well enough to help them satisfy their informational and existential needs. People will pay for them, in whatever form their content is delivered, for as long as they have those needs … which looks like forever.