Hope in the Small Publications


Listen: You hear a lot of bad news about the journalism and publishing industry these days. There are serious challenges within the system. Let’s just say I took a peek at how stock in a newspaper company was performing recently, and it wasn’t pretty. What will be the future? Will we be all slaves to clickbait, or writing for cents per story thanks to that AI co-writer? I suspect there will always be a market, always be a demand. Even if it’s small.

A few months— nope, let’s be honest. A year or two ago I picked up a copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” And while I haven’t waded into the tome yet (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a great evening read), I did crack it.

By chance, I stumbled upon Chapter 14 of Volume Two, “The Industry of Literature.”

Democracy not only infuses a taste for letters among the trading classes, but introduces a trading spirit into literature. In aristocracies, readers are fastidious and few in number; in democracies, they are far more numerous and far less difficult to please. The consequence is, that among aristocratic nations, no one can hope to succeed without immense exertions, and that these exertions may bestow a great deal of fame, but can never earn much money; whilst among democratic nations, a writer may flatter himself that he will obtain at a cheap rate a meagre reputation and a large fortune. For this purpose he need not be admired; it is enough that he is liked. The ever-increasing crowd of readers, and their continual craving for something new, insure the sale of books which nobody much esteems.

Yeah, that account was written 200 years ago. It was a different time. But it leaves a question: How small can an audience be for a writer to make a living? I.F. Stone’s muckraking newsletter started with 5,200 subscribers, and it turned a profit from its first mailing. Local news, often under reported, has an audience of about that many people, if you are looking at writing for a mid-size town.

Startup costs could be minimal. A few hundred bucks max if it was an online publication. Dreaded print, if you found the right printer, wouldn’t be that much more. Heck, to save costs, the editors and journalists could distribute the paper themselves, how Print, the startup newspaper that covers Pittsburg’s east side, does it.

Perhaps there’s a need to tell stories to smaller audiences.