A copy of the San Antonio Express News' Saturday edition for sale at a gas station.
A copy of the San Antonio Express News' Saturday edition is for sale at a gas station. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

What is the future of a free press in U.S. cities like San Antonio? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about seriously for nearly 20 years, which is when it became obvious to most newspaper editors and publishers that a long, slow slide was beginning that might never end.

The slide continues. The bottom may not yet be in sight, but the top is a distant memory, and there is no climbing back.

“It’s bleak,” Ken Doctor, a nationally recognized industry expert, recently told the Financial Times for an article on the decline of newspapers in U.S. cities. “The local press is in free fall in the U.S.”

The continuing demise of U.S. newsrooms is all but assured, thanks to the advent of the internet and smartphones. A certain inevitability has only been hastened by hedge fund and corporate owners, where the pressure to maximize profits trumps public service.

Public interest in that slide ebbs and flows, tending to spike when newsroom layoffs make the news as they did earlier this month when the San Antonio Express-News reported the latest round of 14 job cuts. The staff reduction was small; at most companies it would not make for a story. It is news, however, because the cuts add to the cumulative total dating back to the latter years of my time as editor there.

Every eliminated job means one fewer journalist at work in a fast-growing city, and every one of those jobs is a person. Most who lost their jobs have devoted decades to life and work at the Express-News. One of the newspaper’s more recent hires who lost her job was Graham Watson-Ringo, the producer of expressnews.com, the newspaper’s paid subscription site. We at the Rivard Report were in talks with Watson-Ringo about joining our team before her job was eliminated, so hiring her as managing editor worked out well for everyone.

Several years ago I became convinced that for San Antonio and most cities of similar size, nonprofit online news was the best path forward. That’s when the Rivard Report reorganized from for-profit to a 501(C)3 nonprofit.

The choice was clear: continue to serve an ever-growing audience of online readers with insufficient funds to sustain our business, or join an emerging national trend. I was a close observer of the Texas Tribune, launched by Austin venture capitalist John Thornton in 2009 as Texas newspapers drastically reduced their presence in the state capital. Under founding CEO Evan Smith’s fundraising success, the Tribune probably has more reporters and data specialists deployed now than all the daily newspapers combined at their height.

The Tribune is the state’s national-class nonprofit news organization, but there are a number of others in the state and several on the drawing board. The Rivard Report first published in 2012. The Borderzine in El Paso is the newest, a 2018 startup. Beyond Texas, I regularly read MinnPost in the Twin Cities, and Voice of San Diego, both founded the same year as the Texas Tribune.

There are now more than 140 state and city nonprofit media sites in the U.S. that belong to the Institute for Nonprofit News. No one claims these nonprofit news sites equal the historic reach of daily newspapers, but they are making a measurable difference and they are growing rather than declining.

The Rivard Report has grown from a staff of five to our current size of 17 full-time employees and a number of paid freelance contributors, thanks to generous local philanthropists, foundations, advertisers, and our supporting members. We are relatively small but big enough to make a difference.

Building a sustaining membership base to securely underwrite our operations remains the key challenge, one shared by all the INN members. My wife, Monika Maeckle, worked as the development director at Texas Public Radio in the early 1990s. I knew from her work and from friends and fellow journalists at National Public Radio that only one in 10 listeners were supporting members.

Speaking of public radio, TPR is said to be close to reaching its $5 million fundraising goal to underwrite construction of new studios and offices in the historic Alameda Theater downtown. While that move is still a year or two away, it’s bound to raise the NPR affiliate’s profile and highlight its important role in helping fill the growing local news gap.

We face the same membership challenge at the Rivard Report. Less than one in 10 of our daily readers are members. We have to convince more people that the work we do is worthy not only of their time and attention but also their investment.

I would not trade that challenge for the one my former employer, the Express-News, and other regional U.S. newspapers face as fewer people prove willing to pay the rising production and delivery cost of the print newspaper, while even fewer people pay for expressnews.com.

Counting the household I grew up in, I have been a newspaper subscriber all my life. I still subscribe to the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Express-News, but I read them on a tablet. I am that scarce online reader willing to pay to get inside the so-called paywall to read subscriber-access-only news. It’s a bargain when it comes to the Times and the Post, where the pace of innovation and the depth and richness of the content justifies the cost. Elsewhere, including here in San Antonio, that cost-benefit proposition adds up to a shaky business model. The reduced content simply does not justify the price.

So what is the future of a free press in San Antonio? Lifelong newspaper readers are going to face more disappointment as the slide continues. Readers who can adapt to new ways of consuming news will find that many niche sites offer what they need.

Will enough readers in San Antonio find sufficient value in the work we do at the Rivard Report to sustain us as a credible, public service enterprise? The answer so far is yes, and after nearly six and half years, we continue to grow with the city. We do not take that support or readership for granted. We have deeper local coverage and new offerings on the drawing board. We know we can do better.

We also will be working hard to build membership. We love our readers, but we want them to take the next step. Our site will remain open and free to all readers, but those of you who decide to support us can sign up here.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.