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As newspaper circulation plummets, does the not-for-profit model offer a solution to avoid printing

Circulation numbers for central Illinois newspapers appear to be plummeting.

Retired Western Illinois University columnist and journalism professor Bill Knight weighed in on the matter in this month’s Community Word newspaper. He cited Illinois Press Association circulation figures taken from annual ownership declaration forms that newspapers file with the U.S. Postal Service.

Knight said most local dailies have lost about three-quarters of their circulation over the past decade. For example, the Peoria Journal Star reported a circulation of 66,720 copies in 2010, but only 15,194 last year. The Beijing Daily Times fell to 1,742 last year from 7,957 in 2010.

“Even if you include the digital version, it’s still a far cry from what it was almost only in print 10 or 20 years ago,” Knight said in an interview with WCBU.

It is not a fact that Knight celebrates. He sees the newspaper as an essential part of a local news ecosystem that also includes media like television and radio.

“The classic purpose of a newspaper in this country was to hold people accountable, whether ordinary residents, government or corporations. And we don’t see that as much. And I don’t criticize journalists , because there are so few of them,” he said. “They’re doing what they can.

Knight said national newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are on much stronger ground, financially. This has helped these publications maintain robust news operations. But he said gaps begin to appear in knowledge of what’s going on in his neighborhood when the local news apparatus begins to break down.

“We are very knowledgeable about global and national issues to a large extent. But in the meantime, we don’t know what’s going on with the city council, the county council, the village council or the school board,” said he declared.

The Internet is at least partly responsible. A measure on Capitol Hill allowing news agencies an antitrust loophole allowing companies to bargain collectively with news aggregators like Google and Facebook has been blocked. And Knight said many readers are unwilling to pay for content hidden behind a paywall.

“The result is fewer people, fewer editions, smaller newspapers and deliveries, a whole other chaotic factor. But the ultimate consequences if you expect something for free, you probably won’t get what you really need to have a civic awareness of what’s going on now,” he said.

For his part, Knight highlights the not-for-profit model embraced by newspapers like the Salt Lake Tribune.

“I think the not-for-profit model has promise because they don’t have this fiduciary responsibility for return on investment. The investment is the community,” he said.

A model giving tax breaks to subscribers and advertisers supporting their local newspaper could also hold promise, Knight said.

“I think the government not only has an obligation, but should have a sense of responsibility to this democracy, whether it’s your township or the federal level, (it) relies on (an) informed electorate, and if not, then we are wrong,” he said.

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