Three daily newspapers in southern New Mexico and one in El Paso, Texas notified readers on Wednesday of changes they say are part of a shift to a digital focus. The most significant change appears to be much smaller print editions.
The print editions of the Sun-News and Times are each 12 pages today, which represents a significant reduction. Notes published in the print editions of both newspapers — which weren’t made available on their websites — don’t mention the reduction in the print editions but do detail other changes.
The print edition of the Sun-News will no longer include a Wednesday health section or Friday SunLife section and will include an opinion page five days each week instead of seven. The print edition will contain less breaking news and will no longer include a sports scoreboard page. The newspaper also discontinued, after more than 25 years, the controversial Sound Off column, which featured anonymous opining daily. (The discontinuation of Sound Off was noted online.)
“What won’t change is the Sun-News’ purpose to serve Doña Ana County, to help it grow and to serve as a catalyst to raise the level of discussion in the community,” the letter from Sun-News president Rynni Henderson and managing editor Sylvia Ulloa states. “Today and in the future, the Sun-News remains committed to providing you with the best local news and information in the market.”
The note from Times’ president Lilia Castillo Jones and editor Robert Moore, meanwhile, states that the print edition of the El Paso newspaper will have fewer daily sections, will include “fewer national and world stories,” and will also publish opinion pages five days a week and make changes to the sports section.
“We remain committed to producing a quality print edition each day,” their note states. “We also are dedicated to producing top-notch digital content. These changes will help our journalists become more focused on serving our growing digital audience.”
Print readers of the newspapers in Carlsbad and Alamogordo were notified of similar changes on Wednesday.
Gannett officials have not responded to an email seeking comment on the situation.
The news comes more than a year and a half after Gannett became full owner of the newspapers in June 2015. Before that, Digital First Media was the primary owner and Gannett was a minority, non-controlling owner in the partnership. Gannett has made some other changes since becoming full owner of the newspapers that have included layoffs.
In New Mexico, Gannett also owns the Farmington Daily Times, Deming Headlight, Silver City Sun-News and Ruidoso News. Whether Wednesday’s print-edition changes affect those newspapers wasn’t immediately clear.
Newspapers nationwide have been struggling to adapt to the shift away from print editions and toward the internet — most significantly, how to pay for it. Other New Mexico newspapers have struggled as well. Last year, the independently owned Albuquerque Journal eliminated several staff positions.
One recent study found that U.S. newspapers have eliminated more than 20,000 jobs since 2007, more than 100 daily newspaper have closed, and advertising revenue of the seven publicly traded newspaper companies fell 7.8 percent.
Gannett laid off 2 percent of its workforce last October, including some employees in New Mexico. That move came during the company’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buy another company that publishes several newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
In recent months, the Gannett papers, including the Sun-News and Times, have been trying to lure more digital subscribers by offering online access, with no print subscription included, for $19.99 per year. That compares to $12 per month for online access to the Journal and $11.75 per month for online access to The Santa Fe New Mexican.
But will increasing online subscribers by dropping the price offset the decline in print subscribers? Might Wednesday’s reduction in the newspapers’ print editions result in even more lost print subscriptions? Newspapers across the U.S. are wrestling with such questions.
Nancy Moreno of Las Cruces expressed her dissatisfaction with the changes Wednesday on the Sun-News’ Facebook page.
“Very disappointed with the direction you are going with your print edition,” Moreno wrote. “My husband and I must be one of the few households that still enjoys the paper format. We are not hooked to gadgets and spread the paper out on the table while having breakfast and discuss what we have read with each other. So sorry that the digital age has hit our local paper.”
Jamie Bronstein of Las Cruces also expressed her frustration with the Sun-News on its Facebook page.
“I will not be renewing my subscription when it comes due again; the paper is a joke when it comes to local coverage,” Bronstein wrote Wednesday.
In its note to print readers, the Sun-News stated that businesses “that refuse to meet the needs of our marketplace cease to exist.” The changes are necessary because, the note stated, “our community, subscribers and advertisers are increasingly choosing to access our content online via our website, or by mobile and tablet devices.”
The note also stated the newspaper’s commitment “to delivering balanced, objective journalism to you around the clock.”
The recent study that cited the decline of newspapers, from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, discovered during interviews with journalists “a strong sense that smaller local newspapers are well placed to ride the rising digital tide, emerging successfully — albeit bruised and battered — on the other side.”
“focusing solely on their community, small newspapers can demonstrate a clear and distinctive niche,” an article about the study, which will be released this spring, states.
But “Evolving newsroom structures and revenue models are only part of the story,” the article states. In interviews, “many local editors and reporters, unprompted, told us about the potential for solutions journalism, and the need for small-market newspapers to embrace — or at least be less reticent about — advocacy and a strict adherence to notions of objectivity.”
From the article:
Adopting the role of a good neighbor does not mean abandoning critical perspective. It’s an opportunity to ensure that local newspapers are at the heart of the conversations taking place in their communities. Papers may start those conversations, or they may facilitate and reflect them. Either way, supporting an informed citizenry sits side by side with holding authority to account. They are not mutually exclusive.
In the process of redefining themselves, small-market newspapers may need to develop new approaches to storytelling, engagement, and revenue models. The risk of information deserts is very real in many communities. Preventing this requires a bold reimagining of local journalism.
The changes at the Sun-News will impact NMPolitics.net at least slightly: Editor and publisher Heath Haussamen (the author of this article) writes a column every other week that’s published by the Sun-News and other newspapers in addition to appearing on the NMPolitics.net website. It’s being moved from publishing online Tuesday and in print in the Sun-News on Wednesday to instead publishing online Friday and in print on Saturday.
NMPolitics.net has also recently partnered with the Sun-News on a pair of in-depth stories about multi-ethnic families and has another large project in the works. And the Sun-News occasionally pays a small fee to publish NMPolitics.net articles.
One thing is certain: As of Wednesday, Sun-News readers will, for the first time in more than 25 years, not be able to call Sound Off to anonymously complain about the newspaper’s direction.