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What’s a newspaper worth?

By Robert Dickson
As you might imagine, this question has been on my mind a great deal lately.

As we’ve moved toward this day when this labor of love comes to an end, I’ve talked with a number of tire kickers, a couple of investor-types looking to make a quick profit (really!) and folks who just like this newspaper and would like to see it continue.

Unfortunately, none of these folks see the value in what we’ve built here, at least not enough to make it worthwhile to own. That’s OK, though; nothing lasts forever (thanks, Sy).

What I’m really worrying about now is the future of our type of journalism: news coverage where the story is written in-depth, objectively and professionally, by a reporter actually on the scene, with facts and sources verified – specifically, not a slanted viewpoint by some blogger watching the proceedings on TV in his jammies.

The problem is that professional journalism costs money, and that we have all gotten way too comfortable with getting our news for free. Journalists don’t make much money (just ask the Citizen staff), but they’ve still got to eat.

Newspapers have done this to themselves though, and pulling back from the brink is proving to be painful. The siren song of Internet advertising cash has not made up for the lost revenue from print editions. So, what do you know, newspapers across the land are deciding to charge for their online content. Gee, what a concept.

I grew up with newspapers that you had to buy to read, and I still operate a newspaper that uses that model. But print readership of subscription-based newspapers is losing ground to the digital versions. Pay walls are going to have to come up if for-profit newspapers are to survive.

I’ve heard a neighbor tell me how easy it is to defeat the pay wall at The New York Times. The best $3.75 I spend every week is on that newspaper, and I can’t imagine a day without it. What’s our world going to be like when the Grey Lady goes down because readers won’t pay for content? Or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post or The News & Observer?

The republic will be on the rocks, that’s what will happen. We can have all the instant information we want, but we have to be able to trust it to make reasonable decisions.

Call me an old curmudgeon if you’d like (you won’t be alone), but I want to know the reporters covering the board of aldermen are being paid for their efforts. I want to know that they’ve covered the issues before and can objectively report the details that are so important.

So what does this have to do with the demise of The Carrboro Citizen? My pondering has led me to the belief that one future of hyperlocal news outlets, at least in the style of The Citizen, is as nonprofit entities.

It’s likely too much to ask of small local businesses to provide sufficient advertising revenue to sustain the necessary news coverage for a community like ours. A locally owned and operated nonprofit, however, could supplement ad sales with reader support and maybe a few grants, and come up with a sustainable model for local long-form journalism.

Or we can just be content with a publication that serves as a delivery service or one that is so full of ads that the content is hard to find.

Which will it be? It’s our choice as a community.

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