Ad-Only Newspapers Might Be Annoying — But They Might Just Save Democracy

Chicago residents are trying to get the Chicago Tribune to halt the delivery of its free advertisement papers.
By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    (Photo/Seth Anderson via Flickr)

    (Photo/Seth Anderson via Flickr)

    Chicago residents representing 24 of the city’s neighborhoods filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Tribune for allegedly failing to heed requests to halt delivery of its free advertisement papers, otherwise known as shoppers.

    The lawsuit, filed by attorney Mike Jaskula, is seen as a step toward victory for Chicago-area residents fed up with what they consider trash piling up on their front doorsteps. Yet a victory in court could mean a defeat for Chicago residents in the long run.

    The Chicago Tribune owns the Red Plum shopper, a publication devoted solely to advertisements. The publication generates revenue by printing advertisements and coupons that are paid for by local businesses with the promise of delivery to every household.

    With residents now claiming the shoppers are more of a nuisance than a benefit, revenue for the Chicago Tribune could go down, with repercussions felt once again within the news industry.

    Chicago residents who appreciate the work of Tribune reporters but can’t stand the idea of continuing to receive their free shopper publications could find themselves contributing to the downfall of the news service.

    The lawsuit could also set a precedent for communities throughout the nation whose local newspapers rely on revenue from their shopper publications to keep the news operation afloat. According to the Newspaper Association of America, advertising revenue for newspapers dropped from $49.3 billion in 2006 to $23.9 billion in 2011.

    Americans felt the decline as newspapers throughout the country slashed staff. The Chicago Tribune cut 15 newsroom employees in March 2012. In July 2011, the newspaper cut 20 employees, most of whom worked in the newsroom.

    For large-market papers, the decline in revenue and staff means a decline in quality of coverage. Yet for small communities, the impact could mean a loss of the newspaper altogether — a move that could lead to the demise of American democracy at its purest level.

    Former National Newspaper Association President Reed Anfinson told Mint Press News in a July 2012 interview that, in order for a democracy to function, citizens need to be informed, “and the only way you really inform people in small communities is through their newspaper.”

    “Most of our public officials are very good and honest people who work hard and hardly get paid at all,” he said. “But when they’re under pressure, when things don’t look good and could be embarrassing or controversial, there’s a pressure to talk about this outside the public light — at the most crucial times.”

    Currently, the nation is faced with two key issues that are unfolding in small communities throughout the country. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is expanding in rural America, with small newspapers stepping up to be the first voice for those battling the oil industry in their own backyard.

    The same goes with small towns in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. For community newspapers, it’s a national issue in their own coverage area — and a topic major news outlets aren’t covering, either.

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