Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Newspapers Tanking

As the newspaper business seems to be tanking around the country, this insightful article from American magazine, talks about what may be done to stop the slide into irrelevancy, and with our local paper one of those so sliding, especially relevant.

An excerpt.

“An Industry in Crisis

“Make no mistake about it, this is a crisis. Speaking in May to a group of journalists, Rupert Murdoch pointed out that, as his own newly acquired Wall Street Journal reported, “in the last five or six months, the average newspaper had seen its ad revenue drop 10 to 30 percent.” A decade and a half ago, the average daily circulation of the Post was 832,232; it is now 638,000. The Washington Post Company’s operating revenue in 1999 was $157 million; last year it was $66 million. Newspaper consultant Mark Potts has examined the overall financial picture for American newspapers and, as reported by Charles Layton in the June/July issue of The American Journalism Review (AJR), predicts that “by the year 2020 print ad revenue will be about half what it is today,” leaving newspapers with “six more years of economic pain—continued cuts in staff, newshole and newsgathering resources—before they even start to turn a corner” with improved revenue from Internet advertising.

“The scariest problem,” AJR reported, “is that many papers won’t share in the online growth….And even as the industry as a whole survives, we may begin seeing, pretty soon, big American cities with no daily newspaper.” As Potts puts it: “It’s going to be really bloody, incredibly devastating. And I think there are going to be a lot of major metros that don’t make it.”

“As one who published his first newspaper article more than half a century ago, in the University of North Carolina student paper, The Daily Tar Heel, and who has remained continuously employed in newspapers ever since graduating from UNC in 1961, I find “devastating” exactly the right word. Like innumerable others, I cannot separate the professional, financial, and cultural loss now occurring from the simultaneous personal loss. Not to be melodramatic, but the world in which I have spent my entire adult working life is falling to pieces before my eyes. Thanks to the Post’s generous pension plan, Social Security, and other modest sources of income, I’ll be okay until the Grim Reaper comes for me, but it’s heartbreaking to watch the decline, and perhaps the fall, of the business that I love…

“My impression is that now, when newspapers need to change as never before, too often they are floundering, caught between a past they don’t want to lose and a future they find (understandably) hard to comprehend. The situation was succinctly summarized for AJR’s Layton by Conrad Fink, a former newspaperman who now teaches “newspaper management” at the University of Georgia. Newspapers have to change, he said, “And we’re going to have to be damn fast about it. We’re behind the curve now. We’ve been talking, talking, talking for years. I don’t think we can delay any longer.” He’s right, and he’s especially right if “we” are editors at some of the country’s most famous big-city newspapers, from The Boston Globe to The Miami Herald to The San Francisco Chronicle to—yes—The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. The big three—The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal—have more than their share of problems, but difficulties at metropolitan dailies whose reach is primarily local and regional are far worse. Their circulation and print advertising revenues are falling but, as Layton points out in AJR, their Internet advertising revenues are not even coming close to making up the difference. Their websites are not attractive to local advertisers because a significant percentage of their Internet viewers live outside the print circulation area, and they aren’t attractive to national advertisers because they can reach much larger national (and international) audiences through other websites, including those of the big three.”