An ever bigger threat to local news and democracy


Greedy financiers and monopolistic tech giants are only part of the problem for local journalism.

There’s another, more beguiling threat to America’s press system and the civic literacy and engagement it supports.

That’s the enormous wave of streaming video cresting over our lives, pressing us to screens for many of our waking hours.

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A recent Nielsen report found that Americans collectively streamed 21 million years worth of video last year, up 21% from the 17 million years-worth they streamed the year before (though its user base also changed). It said we are now spending more than 10 hours a day with media, about half TV content.

Measures of time spent reading newspapers online are going the opposite direction.

Chartbeat, a company that 60,000 media companies use to measure digital audiences, reported that people spent 228 billion minutes engaged with their clients’ news content last year.

That’s down 37% from the 361 billion minutes of engagement it reported the year before. And there are 525,600 minutes in a year.

This underlines newspapers’ economic challenge as they look to build their future online.

It also highlights how urgently they need to retain and grow newsroom jobs, hopefully with support from Congress, to produce unique material and service worth keeping on Americans’ growing list of subscriptions. That in turn will sustain local news coverage that’s essential to a healthy democracy.

“There’s no question that the challenges are substantial. But there’s also green shoots,” said Larry DeGaris, executive director of the Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University’s Medill School.

DeGaris said a few recent trends suggest tried and true ways that newspapers succeed still work, helping them build online audiences.

That offers a glimmer of hope for local news outlets, if they can get through the current period of disruption.

The Spiegel center runs a model tracking the online performance of 107 U.S. newspapers.

It generates some surprising insights, such as findings that regularity is more important than duration or page views when it comes to online newspaper visitors.

In other words, people who regularly visit newspaper websites, even for brief periods, are more likely to continue subscribing.

That’s really back to the future. Daily print newspapers have long had games, features and columns throughout the week to encourage repeat visits, build habits and grow subscriptions.

DeGaris noted the success of The New York Times online game Wordle, which helped the paper add 300,000 subscribers last quarter. Another example: streaming video companies doling out new episodes of shows over time, instead of all at once for binge watching.

“The dust is far from settled but if it’s any comfort it seems like we’re regressing to old models with new technology,” he said.

Less encouraging are recent Spiegel findings that, since mid-2022, newspaper readers are spending fewer days per month reading the papers online. That declining regularity is a signal that it’s getting harder to retain subscribers.

Another indicator, the average time spent visiting top U.S. newspapers online, shows a steady decline, according to Comscore data compiled by Pew Research. It said the average visit to the top 50 newspaper websites lasted just under 1.5 minutes in late 2022, down from just over 2 minutes and 30 seconds in late 2014.

Pew cautioned that it’s difficult to accurately gauge newspapers’ digital audience since many dailies don’t get enough web traffic to be measured by Comscore.

Nielsen rubbed salt in the wound by announcing that the top shows streamed last year were reruns, or “existing library content.”

A cable series that ran from 2011 to 2019, “Suits,” was the most watched, with Americans spending 57.7 billion minutes streaming its 141 episodes last year.

While parents watched that or “NCIS” (39.4 billion minutes last year), their kids spent 43.9 billion minutes streaming Disney’s animated show “Bluey.”

No wonder millions of workers don’t want to return to the office. They’re only halfway through the 421 episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” (a series that streamed 38.6 billion minutes last year) and they want to make another lap through “Friends” (25 billion minutes).

Academic research found a majority of voters can’t name their mayor and other elected leaders when local newspapers disappear. But it’s not just local news: A YouGov survey last week found only about half of Americans are aware of criminal charges and civil court rulings against former President Donald Trump.

But we’re caught up on “NCIS.”

Another firm, Leichtman Research Group, found that 88% of American households subscribed to video streaming services last year and 53% subscribed to four or more.

For comparison, 21% of Americans paid for online news in the last year, according to the Reuters Institute’s annual report on digital news. The average across 20 nations surveyed was 17%, led by 39% in Norway and 33% in Sweden.

Among Americans subscribing to online news, just 19% are paying for local news and the median number of news subscriptions is two. Most of them pay for a national paper.

There were also 20 million subscribers to printed daily newspapers in 2022, which is equivalent to 16% of U.S. households.

Some newspapers, including this one, are doing well with the digital transition and reaching younger generations of readers. That’s partly because they are finding new ways to sustain coverage, such as philanthropic support.

But a recent spate of news layoffs and ongoing newspaper closures suggests the overall industry will be reporting less news this year, even as elections approach, unless there are interventions to stop the decline.

Thank goodness there’s a spinoff of “Suits” in the works.

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: Reach him at