Just two weeks ago, the Princeton Packet announced that it would be permanently shutting down commercial printing services at its Witherspoon Street facility. For decades, the paper had printed the Nassau Weekly, the Daily Princetonian, and press releases for a number of local businesses, in addition to their own weekly publication.
When I first heard the news, I was anxious about its implications for the Nass. Newsprint presses in New Jersey are few and far between—in searching for new printers, we could find only one that was a manageable commute from campus. The Packet will be printing its own paper in Delaware, over an hour’s drive away, and the Prince is still searching for options.
But the Packet’s decision was troubling beyond its immediate consequences for the Nass and other clients. In today’s media world, college newspapers—at least those that are not financially independent—are in a unique place of privilege in that they do not have to compete for readership, the way for-profit publications do. As a result, writers have the freedom to take risks and explore issues of personal interest, rather than stick to topics that can be counted on to generate attention. This kind of liberty is virtually unheard of in the broader world of for-profit media, where the need to sell ads restricts what kinds of stories a paper can publish.
Being a student paper has also allowed the Nass to remain a print publication in an era when print, as a medium, is suffering. Before the Packet’s announcement, I had herd countless stories about local papers cutting staff and closing their doors, bowled over by clickbait generators like Buzzfeed. Under the wing of WPRB, the Nass seemed immune to whatever challenges papers were facing outside of Fitzrandolph gates. The Packet’s closing was a jarring reminder of the limits to that immunity, as well as an ominous window into the state of print media outside Princeton.
Perhaps the Packet’s decision should not have come as a surprise. According to Krystal Knapp, the founder of local news blog Planet Princeton, Packet Media Group had been struggling for some time. The organization, which owns a handful of weekly papers in Central New Jersey—including the Hopewell Valley News, Windsor Heights Herald, Cranbury Press, and Hillsborough Beacon—drastically reduced its circulation over the past year, shrinking from eleven publications to only five.
While Packet played off the cutbacks as an effort to focus more on their digital presence, Knapp says she suspects financial difficulties. The company was similarly cryptic about their decision regarding commercial printing: a letter sent to former clients, including the Nass, stated only that the move would offer the group “greater flexibility and capacity for our publications.” Knapp said they likely didn’t have the money to sustain their own press.
Packet Media was not the first news group in the Princeton area to downsize. Nine years ago, in 2006, the Trenton Times—where Knapp worked before Planet Princeton—reduced its newsroom from over 100 reporters to fewer than 40 in an effort to cut back on expenses. She remembers the day of the layoff as being fraught with emotion. Generations of employees left the building for the last time, many in tears. “Some of them had been working their whole adult lives in the production room, printing the paper,” she told me. “Their parents worked there, and their kids worked there.” The Times was one of Trenton’s largest employers.
The same mass layoffs that took place at the Times are affecting newsrooms across the country. According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, the US news industry lost 30% in revenue between 2000 and 2013, dropping below 40,000 full-time employees for the first time since 1978. Just last month, the Awl ran an article citing massive layoffs at major media companies including Bloomberg, ESPN, and the Wall Street Journal. Local papers have been gutted with particular brutality.
“What’s been really hard hit is the reporting on local government…city council, school boards, country governments,” explained Jim Steele, an investigative reporter who taught a journalism course at Princeton this past spring. “Cities that many years ago might have had four or five people covering city hall now only have one.” While these beats were not “explosive” in the sense of viral online content, he feels they were nevertheless essential to peoples’ understanding of local politics and community issues.
This rapid decline in revenue and manpower came hand in hand with the rise of digital media. Publications themselves were largely blindsided by this threat: in fact, Steele says, many papers actually saw digital publishing as an opportunity to save money by cutting back on costly printing and delivery services. Others failed to see the web’s relevance at all.
When, in the early 2000’s, Knapp suggested to her boss that the Times focus on building a digital presence, he dismissed her advice, asserting that “online isn’t the future of journalism.”
Over a decade later, the Internet has become most Americans’ primary source of news, and print subscription sales are dwindling. Because most online news content is free, this shift has been a major blow to many papers’ finances. Additionally, advertising—which, according to Steele, was always publications’ primary source of revenue—is much cheaper online. “In print, you could charge like ten grand for a full page ad, but online you can only charge $1,000,” Knapp told me. “There’s a saying—print dollars, digital dimes, mobile pennies.”
As a lack of financial sustainability drives more and more local papers out of business, bloggers like Knapp are taking it upon themselves to cover the beats these dailies and weeklies leave behind. Theoretically, this makes sense—if Digital Age readers don’t want to read print, blogs could address the same issues that print papers did in a more contemporary medium. The stories would still be there.
After another round of layoffs left the Times with under a dozen reporters—and almost no coverage of Princeton—Knapp launched the independent news site with a grant from the Ford Foundation. Frustrated by her old paper’s resistance to technological advances, she sought as best she could to use her digital status to her advantage. She prominently displayed readers’ comments and maintained an active presence on social media, jumping from 200 to over 2,000 followers during her live reporting of Hurricane Irene. Soon, Krystal Knapp—and Planet Princeton—became household names.
Yet though Knapp has been successful in establishing a following, funding for Planet Princeton remains tight. She sells ads to local businesses, but web ad revenue is meager, and she has been largely dependent on grants to sustain the site. Last year, she reached out to readers for support through a crowdsourcing campaign.
While the initiative brought in $20,000, the experience was somewhat disheartening—rather than receiving small donations from a wide readership, she received large sums from a small group of wealthy individuals. “I think people don’t really understand the importance of paying for news,” she said.
Money isn’t the only resource that’s tight for Knapp. As a self-described “one woman show,” she singlehandedly reports on local beats that only a decade ago would have been covered by an entire newsroom. Managing such a hectic lifestyle is understandably exhausting, and though Knapp says she is careful not to overwork herself, bloggers in other areas haven’t been able to match her endurance. Off the top of her head, she can name a handful of local blogs that have risen to take the place of papers, only to fold after several years out of sheer exhaustion.
“A lot of people get burnt out,” she said. Other blogs remain active, but fail to establish a loyal audience. “Most [blogs] don’t seem to really have the traction, where the citizenry goes to them on a regular basis the way they accepted the paper that came to their front door every day,” Steele observed.
Though blogs might be able to fill the void left by papers in theory, their dependence on a committed core of followers makes it difficult to rely on them as replacements. Whereas a paper like the Packet is delivered to your door, blogs require the reader to navigate to them. In the overpopulated, increasingly chaotic realm of online media, frequenting a local blog—as opposed to a trusted publication like the New York Times—requires a rare level of dedication, both to the blogger and to local events. It’s this disparity that makes the Packet’s closing—and the demise of print media in general—so disconcerting. Reporting on local events can happen online or in print. But will those stories reach the same audience? And who will be compensated for them?
In its relentless integrity and commitment to community issues, Planet Princeton successfully carries the values of a local paper into the digital age. Yet if Planet Princeton is the ideal for the future of local journalism, it is also the work of an idealist: the full-time project of a middle aged woman still willing to “live like a grad student,” to work fourteen to eighteen hour days and accept acclaim in lieu of pay. Krystal Knapp is Planet Princeton—without her the site would not exist. And, as the stories of other “burnt out” bloggers stand to show, Krystal Knapp is an anomaly.
As more and more local papers disappear, it’s tough to predict just what the media landscape of the future will look like. Certainly, there will be superstars like Knapp who continue to report on local events as a pure labor of love. Peterson’s Breaking News—a news blog in Trenton with more Twitter followers then the Times—is run by a college student who works as a security guard to pay bills.
Though for every Knapp or Peterson, there are dozens of what Knapp refers to as “news deserts”: areas where local papers have closed, leaving only silence in their wake. According to Knapp, these are especially likely to occur in low-income areas, where advertising is less desirable—and having channels for discourse about community issues is arguably the most important.
Remarking on the importance of local news, Steele reflected, “The heart of democracy is people knowing, as best they can, what’s happening in their communities.”
Online or print, digital or tactile, we need reliable sources of information about the world that is immediately around us. In the present media climate, these sources are under threat. And, as Steele put it, “there’s still a hole out there that nobody has completely filled.”