3/10/09

THE DEAD AND THE DYING

Judging from the continuing panicked commentary by big media journalists and commentators, newspapers are dead and dying. They are comatose, the family is gathering at the bedside, and quiet discussions are taking place about whether to disconnect them from life support.

Walter Isaacson writing in Time Magazine last week told us that “the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions” and that we can save newspapers by starting to make micropayments for articles we read online.
http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1877191-4,00.html

David Carr, writing in New York Times, this week tells us that a “digitally enabled free fall in ads and audience now has burly guys circling major daily newspapers with plywood and nail guns.” We need to start charging for news, forcing aggregators to pay, turn away from ad support, and start thinking about new ways of collaboration even if they require a new antitrust exemption.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/09/business/media/09carr.html?emc=eta1

Jonathan Zimmermann writing in Christian Science Monitors tells us “The American newspaper is dead.” And that we can save its functions by having professors write for the public.
(http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20090309/cm_csm/yzimmerman)

Nickle and dime-ing readers like the airlines? Special treatment from the government? Relying on professors to tell us what's going on? Have journalists gone mad?

It some ways they have. They are panicking at problems in big city media and ignoring the fact that most newspapers are relatively stable and reasonably healthy. The only newspapers experiencing serious competitive difficulties are those in the top 25 markets (about 1 percent of the total) and these are joined in suffering by corporate newspaper companies whose executives have made serious managerial mistakes.

Journalists are sometimes their own worst enemies, and this is one such time. Through overly pessimistic outlooks and sweeping generalization, they may be hastening the obituaries of some weak papers by making readers and advertisers think their serve no purpose today.

Discussion of the newspaper industry’s situation is confused because many observers do not separate its short-term problems with the economy from the challenges of long-term trends. Then they compound that problem by using papers as examples of industry developments that are unrepresentative because of their market situations and managerial errors.

Most newspapers continued making profits up to the current financial crisis and many papers whose parents went into bankruptcy were doing likewise. They will make profits again when the recession ends as they have done in the past.

The Rocky Mountain News did not die because the newspaper industry is in trouble, but because it was the secondary paper in the market and the joint operating agreement was not enough to save it. Several other JOA papers are on their way to oblivion for the same reasons. The Journal Register Co. and Tribune Co. went into bankruptcy not because its newspapers were unable to survive but because its management took on far too much corporate debt.

Clearly, large metro papers are suffering from the effects of competition from television, cable, and Internet. But that same pain is not being felt by most of the nation’s papers that operate in small and mid-sized towns and are the primary or only significant provider of news in their communities. They will continue to survive for many years because their content is unique and because their local advertisers are not well served by other media options.

What we need is a dose of realism in the discussion of the journalistic situation today. Most papers are NOT in the hospital, let alone comatose. The dead and the dying may be there and if so it is because they can't figure out how to give readers something worth paying for.

13 comments:

Becky said...

Thank you.

yelvington said...

This is great stuff.

There's a tremendous lot of misinformation coming from a cadre of self-serving new-media pundits for whom hyperbole is a standard attention-getting device. And of course it gets picked up and amplified by various old-media columnists who've forgotten how to report before forming opinions and writing about them.

Two key points:

* Cyclical and secular challenges are both real and serious, but they are not the same, and should not be confused.

* The problems of the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle are not the same problems facing a random mid-range daily.

What the stock market is doing to Gannett, which had one paper with more than 40 percent operating margin last year, is just crazy. (I do not own Gannett stock.)

Jim said...

I sincerely hope enough people link to your post and read these words. I've been putting out little brush fires all over my community countering the chicken littles from the metros.

Joel said...

No, no, no! You overlooked so many factors impacting the newspaper industry. I could go on forever about this but I will try to nail the big ones...
1. The cost of newsprint paper has skyrocketed in the last 6 months cutting into profits in a huge way.
2. Advertisers have dropped off because of the large number of businesses going under or experiencing enormous slow downs.
3. The younger generation is getting news on the web and on their smart phones...nobody has time to sit down and read a paper.
4. Newspaper companies are not embracing the web and social media as they should...connecting with people is of ultimate importance in this age of social connectivity.

Printed newspapers WILL die in 5-10 years because of these factors. I envision journalists starting their own websites and blogs and supporting themselves or banding together to provide reliable news sources. People will always want and need a local news source. But the business model for newspapers will have to drastically change in order for them to profit/survive.

Andrew ODell said...

Joel:

Perhaps you should set foot on a college campus, where college newspapers have 70%+ readership. Young people *ARE* reading newspapers. Maybe not all newspapers, but they are reading them.

Walk into the university center here and people are reading the campus newspaper (along with others) while they eat their lunch, NOT reading it on their smart phone.

While a lot of college newspapers have been hurt by the current economic climate, there are a number of us out here doing just fine, with plenty of advertisers still advertising and finding it a highly effective means to reach the college market.

Joel said...

Hey Andrew, when I step onto a college campus I see kids on Facebook and texting and increasingly Twittering.

But the real issue here is not so much readership as it is profitability. I work at a weekly paper that I am sure has a great readership base, but at the same time we have laid off a third of the company and just yesterday the entire editorial staff had salary cuts. Again, this is because the increase in printing costs and the decrease in advertising.

Additionally, it is a fact is that social networks have become a huge part of our culture...you can't build a living dynamic social network around something printed on paper. The web is dynamic which makes it instantly a better medium. If today I can read tweets and blog posts about a bank robbery and read comments that other people write, why would I care to read about it on paper in tomorrow morning—much less a few days afterwards.

Joel said...

oh yeah, I meant to include a link to an interesting Pew Research article with numbers showing a continued increase in web news readers and a continued decline in newspaper readership.
http://pewresearch.org/pubs/928/key-news-audiences-now-blend-online-and-traditional-sources

Anonymous said...

Breaking News !!

"Mainstream news media fails to serve its customers" is the primary reason newspapers are folding.

Journos constantly complain about newsprint costs and advertising shifting to other mediums, but did you ever think that if you improved your quality of reporting you might save a few jobs?

Look in the mirror.

You let editors or publishers push you around, and they pushed you right out of a job.

Ethics, not advertisers should be job #1.

The music industry imploded under almost the exact same rhetoric and circumstances.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Newspapers are toast.

Get over it and eat cereal.

Maurice Cardinal
Editor:www.OlyBLOG.com

peteswords said...

I wonder is it possible that newspapers are only gradually changing, but the pundits who keep on proclaiming the death of newspapers really want to hurry the demise of the newspaper because it is fun and exciting and revolutionary to think and talk about?

They want to be the prophets who foretold the death of newspapers. It really comes across as sensationalism sometimes.

Newspapers will not suddenly disappear. The web and citizen journalism will not suddenly become the only source of news. Things will continue to gradually evolve as we seek out new ways of getting our news. Ways which suit the changing circumstances we live in.

Gina Chen said...

I wish what you wrote were true, but I really don't think it is.

I do agree some newspapers will survive (those that change their content, get on the Web in a meaningful way and trim their costs.) But I do think the newspaper industry is in dire trouble, and not just because of the recession, although that hastens the death. We've been slowing dying for 20 years.

I can't speak for every newspaper, but this I know.

I have spent the past 15 years working for one of those mid-sized dailies you say are doing OK. Mine isn't. Yes, we're still making money, but barely. We've had two rounds of layoffs so far this year -- both in January. We've had buyouts. We cannot travel to cover anything but sports on the company's dime (reporters have paid their own way to the Olympics, Obama's inauguration and Afghanistan to cover stories there.) Bonuses and raises are frozen; we hired only five newsroom folks in about five years, and two of them were lost in layoffs. Our paper considered becoming a tabloid to trim newsprints cost; our news hole has been cut significantly; our price has gone up; our ads to news ratio has shifted dramatically.

We might not be dead or comatose, but we're not healthy.

Granted, my paper is only one example, but I know many other papers in my chain and other chains are really struggling.

I do think the problems are amplified at big-city dailies, but papers like The New York Times also have greater resources than a paper like mine.

I am in fear pretty much constantly for my job, and I think little is gained by pretending this crisis isn't real.

Newspapers need to change now to survive. The reason they are in such bad shape is they didn't respond to the Web sooner -- they ignored it. So even the healthy papers now need to realize:

1. The game has changed; get on the Web in a meaningful way.
2. Young reader are on the Web, not the newspaper. Period. You need to find a way to reach them.
3. You need to listen to readers, connect and engage them not just "give them the news."

Mark Deuze said...

although the warnings about hype and misinformation are much-needed, this post again confuses "journalism" with "media". obviously some newspapers are doing ok, and several will survive (with about 20% of their current staff, for the rest working with unpaid "community columnists" and "hyperlocal correspondents" and a small army of competing freelancers.

but that is not the real debate - the concerns are (and should be) and the future of quality journalism - a journalism that truly engages its market (citizens) in a compelling way.

a previous commenter mentioned how journalists allow themselves to be pushed around by editors and publishers - and all my research suggests that is EXACTLY what has been happening.

a journalism without newspapers is not very likely, nor very troubling. a journalism without journalists - that is where we're heading. and that is a tragedy.

Robert G. Picard said...

I have said many times in this blog, presentations, and papers that what is sacred is not newspapers but journalism.

Today we are generally dependent upon the form of communications (the newspaper)in order to provide the function (serious journalism). If another form emerges that serves the function equally well or better emerges, we should not mourn the decline of the newspaper (unless we are investors).

To date, no equally good or better form and supporting structures have emerged, although some see promise in the Internet and emerging journalism providers--local and national--that are appearing as not-for-profit and commercial operations.

Mark Deuze said...

appreciate the sentiment, Robert, and fully understand the nuanced and important comments you have made about this.

I do feel, for what its worth, we sometimes gloss over the consequences of our academic analyses for the working conditions and labor market. especially in the field of (media) management, I've seen too little recognition of the destruction of talent (the ongoing depopulation of the journalism profession) that coincides with the economies woes and cultural tensions in newspapers.

on a sidenote, I also would argue that TV news is and has been for a while a much more powerful, and in most cases much "better" (as in: more inclusive, diverse) platform for journalistic storytelling than the newspaper has ever beem. TV today still is the number one go-to medium for news for most people - with the exception of (community) radio in certain parts of the world.