Worse day in the newspaper biz.

This news, about industry-wide circulation slides in newspaper circulation, comes as no surprise to anyone who’s worked in the business lately. You can debate the “why” for days and days, although it’s rather neatly summed up here:

The losses come at a time when Americans have many news outlets that didn’t exist 20 years ago, including cable-television news channels and Internet sites, as well as email and cellphone alerts. Many newspapers have substantial and free online sites offering much of what is in the printed paper. These sites might not hurt readership overall, but they can erode a newspaper’s paying audience.

At the same time, many newspapers have undercut the print product itself, trimming staff and coverage. They also have failed to figure out how to attract younger readers to their pages.

A little of this, a little of that, in other words. More competition leads to lower profits, which leads, at papers all over the country, to hiring freezes, staff cutbacks, shrinking coverage areas (known as “concentrating on our core audience” in staff meetings), a thinner, tighter newshole and all sorts of related flanking maneuvers, all of which lead to, anyone? Yes: More circulation declines.

Professionalism suggests I shouldn’t discuss newspapers with which I have first-hand experience, but the paragraph above pretty much sums it up. I had occasion to look in some microfilm at my alma mater not long before I left — I was looking for a story that appeared around the time I arrived at the paper, in the mid-’80s. How I remember those halcyon days, the paper with a fresh Pulitzer and staff out the yin-yang. We even had a full complement of regional stringers, and oh how we loved to hoot over their dispatches. The guy in Berne wrote his on an antique typewriter, and on the envelope, in his elderly hand, he always added a penciled exhortation to the postman: RUSH. The woman in LaGrange County called in news of a barn fire as though it were the towering inferno. And so on.

It so happened there was a LaGrange dispatch on the Metro/State front that day, about a pack of feral dogs bothering farmers in the area, and the posse that had been assembled to bring them to justice. And you know what? I read that sucker. Six paragraphs start to finish, about a problem that wasn’t mine and never would be, and somehow there was more of a pulse on that page than there was in the elegantly designed incarnations that followed. This might be misplaced nostalgia talking, but I don’t think so. The fact is, a larger staff, spread widely over a multi-county area, will find more news than a smaller one concentrated in one metropolitan area.

Anyway, I like the idea that no one said, “Feral dogs? We overwhelmingly serve an urban population that does not suffer from depradations of its henhouses by such animals. Spike it.” Part of the thrill of reading a general-interest publication is finding out about things you didn’t think you wanted to know about.

That’s what I’ll miss most about the news outlets of the future — the surprises. When our online product first debuted, there was a little ‘bot service called Newshound, which went out and fetched you a made-to-order paper. You told Newshound you were interested in Chicago Cubs baseball, the city governments of Phoenix and Cleveland, the music of Warren Zevon and tips on how to improve your golf swing, and Newshound goes out and assembles it for you. The You News. Motto: “No feral dog packs anywhere.”

Also, “No surprises.” And how much fun is that?

Posted at 9:56 am in Uncategorized |

10 responses to “Worse day in the newspaper biz.”

  1. vince said on May 2, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    You know, I guess I’m a young raisin cuz I’m still reading the paper front to back over breakfast each day. The one I can hold and fold and mash in my hands.

    Competition’s up? Yep, no doubt.

    Profits down? Perhaps. But this is where I have a hard time showing much sympathy.

    The vast unwashed have no idea that:

    – newspapers make, ON AVERAGE, 15 to 25 % profit margins.

    – local TV stations make, ON AVERAGE, 45 to 75% profit margins.

    Read those numbers again. They’re stunning. Is there any industry that regularly makes profits like that?

    Yet one local broadcast outlet I know (awfully closely) turned around and laid people off in the middle of a month when they earned their HIGHEST PROFITS EVER. Layoffs in a record? Huh? Turns out the corporate parent that sucked those profits away was having trouble meeting “profit expections” read: “greed goals” and wanted to send a signal to Wall Street that it was reigning in costs (at the expense of people’s livelihoods.)

    I’m sorry. I have trouble with a company that can pay its CEO more than $1 million a year, has huge profits each year, and still lays off folks in the name of revenue “growth” not being high enough.

    Where’s the morality in that play?

    And sooooooo… in a most long winded way, methinks these companies can survive for years to come.. and maybe they’ll just have to settle for the profit margins so many other industries accept. Sustainable but modest.

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  2. Nance said on May 2, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Word. But if they keep diminishing their product, the end will come sooner.

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  3. Dorothy said on May 2, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    Those are very scary facts, not for me personally but for my daughter. She is graduating from Penn State’s Honors College on 5/14 with a degree in journalism. She won a Dow Jones copy editor internship so she has 12 weeks of employment for the summer. I’m praying to the newspaper gods that she gets hired when the internship is up.

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  4. Lance Mannion said on May 2, 2005 at 5:56 pm

    I remember that paper you worked for, Nance. I read it with avid interest. Good writing, lots of interesting stories. Fort Wayne was a hot bed of greed, lust, and murder in those days.

    Whatever happened to old Jack Lee?

    In addition to an energetic and talented metro desk and those folks out in the region you mentioned, the paper had a good music critic, and good arts writer, and three or four fine feature writers. All of them wrote up a storm. Remember that verb. “Wrote.”

    I knew some people on the staff too, some pretty darn well, and I heard a lot of inside stuff. One of the things that changed while I was still a subscriber was the perceived goal of the paper.

    Originally the goal was to turn out a paper that people would want to *read.* By the end, the goal was to turn out a paper people could *use.*

    I believe this brilliant idea came down from Knight Ridder. But it was an industry-wide idiocy.

    This brilliant idea was essentially a decision to stop serving the people who liked newspapers to chase after people who didn’t bother with them. It’s as if GM decided that they needed to increase their market share by targeting people who didn’t have drivers’ licenses.

    The only way newspapers can be useful is if they are read. But if you make a paper into something that’s not readable it’s not useful.

    Doesn’t help that the business was being run by MBAs instead of journalists. People who don’t read can’t make intelligent decisions about the interests of people who like to read. People whose idea of journalism is that it is something to be managed so that it doesn’t bother anyone like them can’t turn out newspapers only press releases.

    Hollywood suffers from a similar problem. The people who make movies don’t like movies. They like money.

    Last thought: Another problem is that it is very difficult and very expensive to start up a newspaper. Newspapers that were founded to serve big cities naturally lost circulation as those cities’ populations shrank. But new newspapers haven’t sprung into being to serve the places all those people who left the city have moved to. There is no Aboite Township Gazette, is there?

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  5. Dave said on May 2, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    Area news from surrounding small towns used to be a reason for rural families to subscribe to a large area daily newspaper, especially if their local paper was weekly. My wife’s old ballet teacher who must be in her late 80’s lived in Rochester, IN all her life. For about forty years she reported Rochester news for the South Bend Tribune. She attended all city and county council meetings, school board meetings, and about any other kind of meeting taking place in Rochester. Most of her reporting was either in long hand or typed, then mailed to South Bend within a deadline. Any type of hot news not meeting the deadline was sent to South Bend by a courier. If it was really hot, she would drive herself halfway and meet the Tribunes’ courier somewhere around Plymouth. She said it got a lot easier when fax machines were invented.

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  6. Jeff said on May 2, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    Yeesh, this is sad; i fear Vince has it figured out, but where does that mean the whole news biz is going? The good news is stuff like the Weingarten story in Alaska that Nance noted in the last post (thanks!). Gene is someone who actually deserves to be at a paper where you can just go to someplace on the far side of the continent on a whim, but i had to re-read the first half of that very affecting and effective story to get past my ongoing mulling over “how did he get someone to approve this?”

    Meanwhile Gannett Corp. is pressing local publishers for profit, profit, profit, and the editors to assemble the paper according to computer generated formulae in Alexandria VA, as to topic, word/sentence length, and story mix. I’m glad to be one of the stringers the kids in the newsroom can laugh about.


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  7. brian stouder said on May 2, 2005 at 10:22 pm

    “Doesn’t help that the business was being run by MBAs instead of journalists. People who don’t read can’t make intelligent decisions about the interests of people who like to read. People whose idea of journalism is that it is something to be managed so that it doesn’t bother anyone like them can’t turn out newspapers only press releases.”

    And yet – the scandal sheets and so on sell millions of copies every week. The people who buy that stuff may be rubes – but they’re runes who READ!!! – so indeed it CAN be done.

    If people want to read about personalities and other frippery, then why not put some sugar with the medicine? Fort Wayne print journalism, for example, could have a ball with our local “in crowd” set (so to speak). The ongoing Lincoln Life soap opera of personalities (where’s the Fort Wayne editor who barks “I want dirt on Boscia! I want it yesterday!”), the leadership of the lottery-winning Allen County Public Library system (currently building a new palace downtown, as the centerpiece for a whole lot of money on bricks and mortar [as opposed to, like, books!] all over the county), the UNTOLD STORY of the mass-firing at Channel 33 (I kid you not, our local media ran an interview of Linda Jackson which was being monitored by her new employer! Gimme ‘un-named officials’ or ‘highly placed sources’…anything but this non-news DRECK!), etc.

    There is plenty of news, and plenty of money to be made reporting that news, if done with flair.

    But it is being plowed under.

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  8. brian stouder said on May 2, 2005 at 11:48 pm

    from the article:

    “At the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel, those types of daily sales jumped 53% in two years, to nearly 38,000 copies a day. But advertisers were unenthusiastic, so the newspaper pulled back. Take hotel copies, Mr. Smith says: “Are the people staying in those hotels actually going to shop with those advertisers?” The answer in many cases, he says, is no.”

    See, I think that’s just stupid. Orlando? Orlando??!!

    I’ve been there a few times, and (as is the case whenever I travel) I read their paper, and their ads – and guess what? We checked the restaurant/out and about ads and so forth, and acted made purchase decisions based on them…and read store ads, and acted on them, too. (can’t let Mickey Mouse get ALL your money!)

    True enough, I probably would never buy a car or a sofa down there…but surely there are plenty of vacation-related retailers down there who are competing for the dollars of people on holiday – who will pay more for their ads if the papers are scattered through the big hotels every day, no?

    But I suppose not

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  9. alex said on May 3, 2005 at 8:32 pm

    Brian, the Fort Wayne rags don’t have the staffing or the talent it takes to produce a scandal sheet anyone would want to read, let alone a daily newspaper. Frankly, I’ve always thought this town was ripe for a gossip column, but even if management could be persuaded to try it, they’d also be cutting the balls off it to the point that it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time.

    The best we can hope for, I’m afraid, is for something like Whatzup to morph into an alt weekly with news beats other than entertainment.

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  10. brian stouder said on May 3, 2005 at 11:03 pm

    I’d drink to that!

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