Without Dispatch

An era is ending in Columbus.  The Dispatch Printing Company is selling the Columbus Dispatch, our local daily newspaper, to the New Media Investment Group, a holding company that is headquartered in New York City.

The Dispatch has long been identified with the Wolfes, an influential Columbus-based family that has owned and published the newspaper for more than 100 years.  Indeed, the Wolfes are so associated with the Dispatch that when the sale was announced this week the current publisher, John F. Wolfe, wrote a letter to the community explaining why the family would part with their flagship publication.

Wolfe’s stated reasons are familiar to anyone who follows the newspaper business:  he believes that independent, locally owned newspapers cannot realistically compete in an era where media conglomerates have the advantage of economies of scale.  Such economies are crucial in a business where the costs of acquiring, printing, and distributing a hard copy newspaper — to say nothing of providing it with content — put the daily newspaper delivered to your doorstep at a clear disadvantage compared to digital outlets that don’t have to buy paper and ink, maintain printing presses, and pay printers and delivery people.  When you combine the cost disadvantage with overall national trends of falling subscription numbers and declining advertising revenue, you produce a witches’ brew that ultimately has been fatal to many independent dailies.  The Dispatch has tried to cut costs, by shrinking the physical size of the newspaper among other steps, but ultimately it, too, succumbed to the inexorable forces of the marketplace and the reading habits of the American public.

The Wolfe family has been a central force in Columbus forever, and whether you agreed or disagreed with the Dispatch‘s editorial positions or approach to the news you at least knew that their hearts were here, in Columbus, and their focus was on their newspaper.  Now the Dispatch will be operated by a faraway conglomerate that owns 126 dailies in 32 states.  For those of us in Columbus for whom the Dispatch has been synonymous with the Wolfe family, it is a stunning development — and now we will see what those economies of scale will look like, and how being one newspaper in a corporate stable of more than 100 newspapers will affect news coverage, content, and the focus of local reporting.  We can safely predict that Columbus will never be the same.