Newspapers may be in their death throes, but they aren’t dying quietly.

David Crisp
David Crisp

When I wrote a column in December about subscription rate hikes at the Billings Gazette, the column went viral – at least what passes for virility at Last Best News. Between our website, our Facebook page and the Facebook pages that shared the column, it drew well over 100 comments.

I’ve continued to hear about it since then. A friend told me that she had just renewed her Gazette subscription for six months for a price lower than I am paying for a single month. A Helena reader said the Lee Enterprises newspapers now allow him to read only one article a day on his hand-held device.

“Motivation?” he asked. “Sort of like Apple slowing down old phones to force people to buy something they don’t want to buy i.e. a subscription, online or print.”

Now it appears that similar things are happening at the Great Falls Tribune. T.J. Gilles, a former writer for the Tribune and a contributor to the old Billings Outpost and to Last Best News, sent along a link to a Facebook group discussing what’s going on at the Trib.

Commenters aired familiar complaints. They said their rates were going up, they were getting less news, and prices varied in wildly unpredictable ways. One canceled when the monthly rate jumped to $47 a month, then found that a friend was paying $22 – but getting billed for $27.

One woman’s rate jumped from $32 to $51 a month, supposedly because she was on a route with few customers. Another dropped a subscription after the price went to $44 a month, while others were paying only $36.

One woman with a bargain rate said, “When my paper tries to raise the rate, I call to cancel and they bargain over the rate to keep me. I’m still paying the rate from before three rate increase[s].”

Others complained about having to wait on hold for up to two hours to get a response from customer service. Some said that customer complaints are routed to North Carolina, where an answering machine takes all calls.

“Why in the Hell would anyone in North Carolina give rip about me and my issues,” one asked. “They get paid even if they go to coffee and ignore the phone ringing!”

One customer said that even when he suspended his subscription while spending the winter in Arizona, he continued to get billed for delivery service and holiday papers.

If I were running the Trib, I would worry most about the commenters who said they were giving up their subscriptions after many years – one after 63 years as a Tribune subscriber. Losing a customer like that is a punch in the gut.

Now, some of those comments probably should be taken with a shaker or two of salt. It wasn’t clear whether some subscribers were referring to digital or print subscriptions, or whether they had full seven-day-a-week subscriptions.

What was clear is that lots of Tribune and Gazette subscribers are paying wildly different rates for the same paper. So the $48.50 I am being charged every month may be subsidizing the $33, or less, that you are paying.

You are welcome. Let me know if you read anything interesting.

What’s also clear is that when old, established newspapers start selling papers on a pay-what-you-will basis, the future isn’t bright.

In fact, although the struggles of print papers are no longer news, things may be even worse than you imagined. A 2016 study by the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that more than a third of American newspapers have changed ownership since 2004, some of them two or three times.

Who’s buying them? Mostly large investment companies, who increased their newspaper ownership from 352 papers in 2004 to more than 1,000 in 2014. According to the report, “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” the investment companies adopt a standard formula: They take on debt to buy troubled papers, cut costs ruthlessly, recoup their costs in a few years and then sell the papers to someone else hoping to turn a quick profit.

An update to the study suggests that the trend slowed in 2016, but consolidation continues. The three largest newspaper chains, including Gannett, owned nearly twice as many papers in 2016 as the three largest did in 2004.

Investment company ownership has not hit Montana, so far as I can determine, but it has had a huge impact on the entire industry. Say what you will about Gannett, which owns the Trib, or Lee, which owns the Gazette, they have long histories as newspaper companies. They at least pay lip service to concepts like editorial independence, adequate staffing and the best interests of the community.

The corporate behemoths that dominate Montana may seem like the devil, but they are mere imps. Satan is on his way.

It’s enough to make you want to support your local newspaper, if you can figure out how much it costs.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and college professor who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.