YEARS AGO THE PUBLISHER of a daily newspaper in this region asked me, “Why do people hate us so much?” He was referring to daily newspapers as the object of scorn, not to publishers, but he took it personally. The newspaper executive who asked the question was not Roger Coleman, publisher of the Register-Star in Hudson and several smaller papers, who died suddenly this week while at his family’s home in Kentucky. I don’t know how he would have responded. But Mr. Coleman certainly had what could seem like a thankless task.
Daily newspapers have had a rough ride over the last decade and more. Media critics argue that the decline was brought on by the failure of owners to adapt to new media and society’s changing tastes and habits. Some of the criticism rings true, some is hindsight. But how relevant is a daily newspaper in an era when people carry around instant access to news through a little plastic box in their pocket?
The audience for news printed on dead trees available once a day with no instantaneous updates has shrunk faster than polar icecaps. If you’re muttering to yourself that you like the feel of a newspaper and prefer to get your news as ink on paper, consider yourself, like me, an endangered species.
I first learned the sad news of Mr. Coleman’s death by email, which led me to the blog of county resident Sam Pratt. Next I found a story about it on the Register-Star website. I then posted a brief synopsis of those sources on our website with links to the blog and the Register-Star. I don’t know what was simultaneously being written on Facebook and Twitter about his untimely death–he was only 61–but daily newspapers have a hard time competing in this electronic news world. It was a challenge that Mr. Coleman faced every day.
People who’ve lived here a long time will tell you about when the Register-Star was unquestionably the dominant source for news in Columbia County. It was also the medium advertisers relied on to sell products and services. Over the years other publications, including this one, have whittled away at that power, as have radio, cable TV and now digital. The changing media mix has fractured the audience for a daily newspaper. The Register-Star, which reported daily circulation hovering above 5,000 papers for the last few years, said that its single issue circulation was just under 3,800 papers last fall.
Major daily newspapers have recently registered increases in circulation due in large part to the industry counting subscribers who pay for digital subscriptions so they can view the contents of the paper online. But smaller dailies like the Register-Star don’t yet have a practical way of doing that. So Mr. Coleman, and other publishers, have had to figure out how to make their papers profitable when the industry is changing so fast that few of the old approaches work anymore, and new approaches get swallowed by newer ones before anyone figures out what just happened.
It’s no secret the Register-Star recently suffered turmoil in the newsroom. You can blame the publisher for that and for everything that goes into or gets left out of the paper. He was in charge. But to do that you also have to give him credit where it’s due. During his tenure as publisher the Register-Star has tenaciously clung to its legacy as the most comprehensive source of news and information about the Hudson area, county government and breaking news around Columbia County. It has grown as a community asset through endeavors it has supported.
The owners of the paper have their headquarters in Watertown, but Roger Coleman was engaged with local civic activities ranging from the Salvation Army to the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary. By example he showed that the Register-Star could serve readers best when it was seen as part of the community, not an outsider looking in.
Maybe what critics mean when they badmouth the local daily is that they want more from their paper. They’re frustrated and that’s how they phrase it. Roger Coleman inherited hard times and he enthusiastically sought to meet what he saw as readers’ expectations. He kept the paper vibrant at a time when others might have retreated to a caretaker’s role or simply given up. That took character and strength. The paper’s readers and the community at large, are better off for all his efforts. So is the Register-Star.