This is a difficult column to write.

That’s because it will be the last one I write as a full-time employee of the Times-Union.

I have accepted a position as editor of RVBusiness magazine in Elkhart. I start work there next week. I have agreed to remain a consultant to the Times-Union.

I would like to thank the owners of the Times-Union – the Williams family – for the support and encouragement they have provided over the years.

The newspaper is in good hands.

David Slone, who has 21 years experience covering Warsaw news, takes over as managing editor.

David Hays, the director of circulation and information technology, has nearly 15 years experience with the newspaper. He has been named general manager.

I started working here in March 1988 and started writing this column in 1990.

It would be the definition of understatement to say that I have seen quite a bit of change in the newspaper business over these past 31 years.

Perhaps I am becoming that quintessential grumpy old man, but it is my considered opinion that most of those changes nationwide have not been positive.

I think this might be a good time to point out why newspapers are important to a community. It’s not because of little Johnny’s picture at the library, car crashes, house fires, arrests, basketball games, Dear Abby, crossword puzzles or Ann Coulter.

Certainly, all those things are important and add value as local and syndicated content.

But the real value in a newspaper comes as it fulfills its role as a watchdog of elected officials.

It may not be all that interesting to read the city council, school board or county commissioners story, but be assured of this: If there wasn’t a reporter in the room, the decisions made by those folks would likely be quite different.

Sure, for the most part, elected officials will do the right thing and make sound decisions regarding the use of your tax dollars. But how would you feel about the same elected officials operating without any public scrutiny?

That’s where we as a nation are headed. And that’s not a good place.

“But all that news will be online,” you say?

I beg to differ.

The bottom line for a market the size of Warsaw is that if there is no print, there is no digital.

If I could move into a town the size of Warsaw, hire a couple of people to write local stories, take pictures, sell digital ads and launch a profitable local news website, I would do it.

In fact, people would be doing it all over this great land. But they don’t. It doesn’t happen. Why? Is it because nobody thought about doing it? Is it because people are afraid of making money? Of course not.

It’s because it’s not profitable.

We sell newspapers and we sell advertising. We put the content we’re generating online. If there was no Times-Union, there would be no Times-Union website.

It’s the same in every small news market in America.

Our market is unique in that The Papers Inc. in Milford has entered the online news scene with InkFree News. But TPI also produces nearly a dozen print products. Be assured, if those publications weren’t in the picture, there would be no InkFree News.

In small towns all across America, if print newspapers go away, there will be no digital news either.

At that point, oversight of the actions of public officials will be left to volunteer bloggers or Facebookers – no training, no editing, no credibility. Largely, they will be people with axes to grind with no concern for objectivity  or the best interest of the community.

This is not a good thing.

There’s a reason newspapers are dubbed “The Fourth Estate.” Scrutiny of public officials is key to the democratic process. How can voters know who to elect if they don’t know how elected officials are performing?

At the outset of the online revolution back in the late 1990s, newspaper people around the country put content online in hopes that ad revenue would follow and grow. What happened was the converse. Not only did the ad revenue not follow, it shrunk. Advertisers – even at the local level – spent dollars in places that offered millions of eyeballs, not thousands – so digital ads actually sell for less today than they did back then.

The top revenue grabbers in digital advertising are as follows, ranked by the percentage of all digital advertising they raked in:

Google – 38.2%

Facebook – 21.8%

Amazon – 6.8%

Microsoft and LinkedIn – 4.1%

Verizon – 3.4%

That amounts to about 75% of the digital ad pie. I wonder what the Times-Union’s share is?

Today, the online news landscape is changing. Instead of eyeballs, subscribers are the goal. The clickbait days are waning. It’s not about how many people look at your site, it’s how many people are willing to pay to look at your site. It’s where advertisers seek to gain access to your subscriber base.

We tried a subscription model, but we had clients who refused to advertise because our site was behind a paywall. We took the paywall down. They were still looking for eyeballs. Perhaps, as the landscape evolves, the subscription model will have to return.

The most successful online news model so far has been the New York Times, with its online subscription model surpassing 1 million subscribers this past year. In response, fourth-quarter digital advertising revenue increased 22.8%, while print advertising revenue decreased 10.2%. Digital advertising revenue was $103.4 million, or 53.9% of total advertising revenues, compared with $84.2 million, or 46.1%, in the fourth quarter of 2017. This is according to the NYT.

Even with more than a million online subscribers, digital revenue is not quite 54% of total revenue. Print is still providing 46% of revenue. Despite their great online success, what do you suppose would happen at the NYT if it lost 46% of its revenue?

The good news for the NYT is that these numbers show hope for an online news product. But remember, the NYT’s market area is planet earth.

Meanwhile, “new media” properties – those that have only an online presence – are struggling: Layoffs at BuzzFeed, Vice Media and  Verizon Media Group point to the failings of those business models even at the global market level.

The Times-Union is not the NYT. We don’t have a national scope. It’s a completely different picture for a market the size of Kosciusko County. In the best case, how many digital subscribers can we hope to have?

The question for small dailies nationwide is whether vibrant coverage of local news can generate a profitable online-only business model.

I don’t have the answer. But I know for now – and for the foreseeable future – if there’s no print, there’s no digital.

Finally, I hear people say “print is dead.” I always ask them, “Have you looked in your mailbox lately?” If print advertising is dead, why would so many different companies pay dearly to mail you print advertising? Do you think they’re in the habit of wasting money?

Print works. It always has and it always will. In fact, newspapers and magazines are the only mediums where people buy the product for the advertising.

Think about that for a moment.

Sure, readers want the stories, but they want the ads, too. If our inserter skips a cycle and a reader doesn’t get a Walgreens flyer, my phone rings. “Hey, I didn’t get my Walgreens flyer,” the reader laments.

In every other medium, ads are an annoyance. Radio? You hear a commercial, you switch to a channel with music. Streaming service? You pay extra to avoid the commercials. TV? You DVR through the commercials. Internet? How many times have you clicked the tiny little X in the upper right corner of a popup ad?

People buy print for the ads.

The Times-Union remains a viable print product – family owned and independent. It will continue to offer effective ways to get your message out, whether it’s a press release, garage sale or retail door buster sale. The Best Of Times total-market saturation product will deliver your message to every residential address in Kosciusko County for less than any other medium available to you.

But for it to stay that way, it needs the support of this community. It needs subscribers. It needs advertisers.

With limited resources, this newspaper paints an accurate, valuable picture of this community.

Stick with it and it will stick with you.

So long, gentle readers. Thanks for a wonderful 31 years.