Columnists are probably the most valuable asset of many mainstream metropolitan newspapers. They are keeping newspapers afloat. Take them out of your daily newspaper and what’s left? News you can find in many other places, often for free. 

If I weren’t in the newspaper business and had to pay, say, $15 to $20 a month for a subscription to a metropolitan daily, it would be mainly to read the opinions of the columnists. I would turn to an outlet like CBC News for my free hit of local, national and international news, and to the N.Y. Times and the Guardian for deeper news reads.

Price is a factor for many, I think. I touched on that in the preceding post about novels. We are seeing our disposable income being eaten away by inflation these days, and I’m sure some people are looking to cut their expenses. The average person probably subscribes to several services, from their internet package to streaming services to digital media companies. I think the latter would be the first to go considering you can get the news for free.

I imagine many newspapers struggling with declining subscriptions are reviewing what they charge. Take the N.Y. Times, for example. I cancelled a N.Y. Times digital subscription because I found I wasn’t reading it enough to justify the $16 a month, and they kept pestering me to renew with a $2-a-month subscription for a year. I took it. After the year, I might cancel it again .. . and they might pester me again … and I might renew it again for $2.

But I don’t read the N.Y. Times for their columnists. I read it for deep dives into international news stories (i.e. anything outside of Canada) that interest me because I can’t find that kind of comprehensive news coverage in city dailies, which don’t have the resources to devote to international news. They can’t even cover all the local and national news given the staff reductions throughout the newspaper industry. So, they limit their focus to the bigger city stories and go all out with coverage of their local major league sports teams.

Take Canada, for example. It is a hockey-crazy nation. So, newspapers in any city with an NHL franchise cover every move by their team in fine detail, with plenty of analysis and opinions by their sports columnists. You don’t get that sort of coverage on your local TV news broadcast or on the CBC News website. The hockey coverage and analysis by your local newspaper is often worth the price of a subscription alone.

There are more than hockey columnists, of course. Your newspaper subscription will usually give you the opinions of several columnists on everything from current events to politics to entertainment and lifestyles and personal finance and more.

Columnists are the stars of the newspaper business these days. They are what give newspapers value. But, sadly, even they can’t save the sinking ship that is the legacy newspaper industry. Only the very best newspapers will stay afloat in the not-that-long run, like the New York Times and The Guardian. 

I think many columnists are aware of that, and there is a growing trend now among some of them to strike out on their own in newsletter forums like Substack. They can make a ton of money there, with many, many more readers and subscribers than they might have had in a mainstream newspaper setting. And they don’t have to deal with the corporate politics of media owners. 

Again, though, they have to be careful with subscription fees — especially in a world of rising interest rates. They also need to be aware that they are not the only opinion makers who have struck out on their own. Some columnists are teaming up in places like Substack, offering more value for your subscription dollars.

I can see a lot more of that happening in the near future.


Update to previous post on the price of novels and if I will pay for the second book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series: Yes. I’ll pay. My bff assures me that $6.99 plus 16% sales tax is “cheap” for a novel by a good writer, even if it is a cosy mystery like so many other cosy mysteries. 

— Jillian