With the coronavirus pandemic came a flood of stories for the Manhattan Mercury.
The daily newspaper serving a town of nearly 55,000 in a community built around Kansas State University and the Fort Riley U.S. Army base reported on a county commissioner who said there would be no virus cases in the county because there were no Chinese people.
The paper had stories on the city commissioner who hoped everyone would get sick so they could get the pandemic over with.
And it covered an outbreak of COVID-19 on the K-State football team.
As a result, digital subscriptions to the Mercury doubled and page views on its website have risen by more than 30% since early March, when the paper took down its online paywall. Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Ned Seaton said many of the new readers came a few months later, after the newspaper started charging to read its website again.
“The pandemic has played a role in a demand for information,” Seaton said, “and in the way that ends up getting converted into subscriptions.”
Other local newspapers in Kansas also say their pageviews and subscriptions have increased since the pandemic upended the country in March. That’s helped make up for lost advertising revenue
As awful as the pandemic has been, it’s stoked a hunger for local news and helped a struggling industry that’s had to lay off much of its workforce to cope with shifting economics for more than a decade.
“When push comes to shove, the people need reliable and good information,” Seaton said. “That’s our business.”
The Lawrence Journal-World in northeast Kansas also saw an increase in readership, said editor and publisher Chad Lawhorn.
Page views in June of 2020 were 55% higher than page views in June of 2019, he said. While the paper typically sees a net increase of 50 to 80 new subscriptions a month, throughout the pandemic, net new subscriptions have been over 100 per month.
There wasn’t much in the way of sports coverage during the lockdown, he said, but readers were drawn to stories about case numbers.
“There was just so much information about what was changing in our community,” Lawhorn said.
The pandemic, and the economic collapse it triggered, sucked away advertising dollars. But the Lawrence publisher said ad dollars have picked up recently as more businesses have reopened.
The Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, the two largest newspapers in the state, saw “significant digital audience growth” in 2020, Mike Fannin, the president and editor of the Star, said in an email.
Fannin did not specify by how much or how the newspapers measured the growth, but he said digital subscriptions had increased for both newspapers, even after they lifted the paywall for many stories about COVID-19.
Repeated phone calls and emails to Gannett, one of the largest newspaper companies in the U.S., were not returned. The company owns 20 newspapers in Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Leavenworth Times and the Garden City Telegram.
A slower decline
The modern rule of thumb for the newspaper industry is a 10% drop in circulation every year, said Brandon Decker. He’s worked on the business side of four different newspaper companies in the past decade. Smaller, more local papers might see a slightly slower decline in subscribers from year to year.
“When you get into smaller regional publications,” he said, “that number typically goes down a bit because you have a smaller subscriber base.”
Decker now works in audience development and engagement at the News-Press and Gazette Company, based in St. Joseph, Missouri. The company owns TV news stations in the western half of the U.S. and newspapers in Kansas and Missouri. Its Kansas publications include the Atchison Daily Globe, the Hiawatha World and the Miami County Republic.
From 2018 to 2019, Decker said, those three newspapers saw a circulation decline of 10%. But from 2019 until 2020, circulation has only declined by 4% so far. Subscription cancellations declined by 35% and web traffic increased by 27% during the spring and summer of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Decker said the change reflects readers’ desire to know the local impact of a story that has been covered extensively on a global and national level.
“People are more in touch now than they ever have been,” he said, “because of the imposed health risks of them being uninformed.”
Another factor, he said, could simply be that many people have more free time.
“People are home more, so they have more time to read us,” he said. “They care about their families and community.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @NominUJ. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.