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The State of Daily Newspapers

By Ben L. Kaufman · August 20th, 2008 · On Second Thought
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First, some facts.

Advertising supports most newspapers. Advertising in daily papers is slipping dangerously. Advertising on newspaper Web sites is growing but nowhere near fast enough to compensate for the loss of print ads.

Papers are physically smaller now -- smaller dimensions and fewer pages -- and dailies of every size and reputation are laying off journalists. Some weeks, the layoffs number in the hundreds nationally.

Now, some thoughts.

Dailies have been dying for decades, although most of the casualties were afternoon papers -- like The Cincinnati Post -- whose audiences disappeared into loungers in front of the TV for the evening news. That left most communities that had a daily paper with one paper and fewer were locally owned ... for better or worse.

The situation is similar for weeklies and "local" radio stations.

The situation is worst for dailies. Those papers never again will be the authoritative news source that they have been for decades. At one time, "I read it in The Enquirer" was more than a teeth-grinding jingle.

Dailies still are a common treasure, providing communities information from which many of us form our opinions and upon which we often base our actions. When papers perform with competence and honor, communities are strengthened.

Today, there are so many sources of information and opinion that no one speaks any longer of a common knowledge. Nonpartisan polls indicates that ever more Americans are turning to broadcasters and Internet sites that stroke their biases rather than provide new and potentially challenging information.

Worse, fewer Americans seem to know the difference between news sources that pursue information and interpreters who feed off of the news media and offer opinions that consumers embrace as fact.

How long dailies on paper will survive is uncertain. Whether their owners will find a way to prosper on the Internet is unclear.

Wall Street doesn't think highly of newspaper shares, and investors who went deeply into debt to buy dailies in recent years are firing journalists and cheapening the papers in self-destructive efforts to meet financial demands.

However it goes, advertising still must provide the income to hire the journalists and produce the reports that audiences want. The model of The St. Petersburg Times, owned by a nonprofit foundation, isn't a likely alternative in many communities.

Competition for advertising dollars is unprecedented. In the Good Old Days, competition came primarily from local TV, Yellow Pages, Door Store, giveaway auto and apartment booklets, etc. Huge sums were derived from those line-by-line sales of classifieds.

Now Craig's List and other Internet sources have ended that monopoly.

It's unclear if many news organization can charge for access to Internet information. Some tried and gave up. A few persist but only in special circumstances, as at The Wall Street Journal.

Charging risks alienating those of us accustomed to "free" Internet sources.

As the old line goes, "Why buy a cow when you can get milk through the fence?" Why buy a "paper" when it or its competition is on the Internet for free?

Some friends of the newspaper business are using terms like "death spiral." Falling ad revenues force staff cuts that reduce quality and quantity of content, which shrinks audiences and reinforces advertiser inclinations to go elsewhere. That cuts ad revenues further. You get it.

Others see the Internet-as-future if only they knew what it would be.

Still others -- including Enquirer owner Gannett -- see the Internet as the present. The newsroom now is a 24/7 information center with the goal of making news available any way audiences prefer. The Enquirer avoided purging its news staff to save money, aided in part by early retirements, buyouts and unfilled positions.

The paper, however, finally acknowledged imminent staff cuts that Cincinnati Business Courier reported 11 days earlier. If too few people accept the voluntary departures, the paper might start firing. If that includes journalists, it will be a first in memory. The cuts are part of a reported 3 percent staff reduction -- 1,000 people -- ordered by Gannett throughout its papers.

On the other hand, Enquirer circulation appears stable or slightly increasing. It's far below the Good Old Days, but anything other than decline is good news today.

Editors who embrace the Internet as NOW! are weaning journalists from decades of tradition, in which they wrote a story or stories for the next day's paper. Now it's "write for the Web and update for the paper."

I promise you that can be painful for journalists who prospered under the old system. Instead of developing a story with multiple sources and painstaking crosschecking, there's pressure to post a first draft on the Web and, God willing, update later.

The emphasis is on quantity and speed. Everyone else is doing it. Even The New York Times is conceding publicly that stories breaking on its Web site might not meet print standards. That's troubling, because advertisers will turn to a daily's Web sites only if the sites command desired audiences.

If "readers" become accustomed to going to bloggers or TV Web sites first, death "dive" rather than "spiral" is appropriate.

Along with this accommodation of the new reality is another. Some call it "hyper local" news.

That's fine, so long as it's more than festivals and cops or the dreaded "reader content" on Internet community pages.

Even with their shrunken staffs, dailies still can provide something like the local news with which audiences grew up. No one else can.

Hyper local means pulling in to, essentially, where you sell papers or draw viewers to the Web page. It's an intensification of a trend that began decades ago. I saw it on The Minneapolis Star in the mid-1960s. Des Moines, Louisville and other statewide papers followed suit since, cutting staff coverage when advertising and circulation fail to support it.

Look at The Kentucky Enquirer. It emphasizes Northern Kentucky. It includes some Cincinnati news. It's not what The Kentucky Post was, but that was a different time. It's an example of concentrating on local communities where people buy the local paper.

Let me repeat: The first job of the commercial news media (paper, TV, radio, whatever) is to deliver an audience to an advertiser. Why would anyone spend ad money where no one would see/hear the ad?

Change the words, and you have public broadcasting. If those stations don't serve audiences, no one will support them.

Hyper local need not mean dumbed-down reader content on myriad Web sites promoted as neighborhood venues. That's not reporting. And hyper local need not mean embracing the idiotic concept of "citizen journalist," in which anyone with a camera phone is anointed with the title "journalist" after working journalists use their stuff.

Finally, some predictions.

Publishers will continue to produce dailies on paper so long as total ad revenues justify it. That might not be long.

As a group, today's college students don't read a daily on paper if they read a newspaper at all. That's been a growing trend for years. Journalist students who hope for jobs must demonstrate multimedia talents.

Put another way, readers of dailies on paper are going the way of network TV news audiences. Some day, it won't pay to print a paper.

Whatever we call them, news organizations will continue to exist in some form that I'm unwilling to predict. Myriad sources and competition for ads probably mean dispersed ad dollars and a lack of resources to create and maintain the news staffs that dailies still enjoy.

More and more audiences will gravitate to sources of news and opinion with which they already agree, and the common sources of information on which public debate and decisions are based will vanish.

That poverty of shared information will make it far easier for government, industry and other interest groups to shape public opinion through selective facts and interpretations.

It's happening now. Few statements are challenged by reporters who lack background or time to probe assertions made by public officials and figures. Once those statements are reported, then partisan interpreters take over and what might have been "the facts" are lost.

With rarest exceptions, few people will come forward with money to support classic reporting on new, independent Web sites. That leaves bloggers doing what they can or rehashing the reporting of others.

Until those others vanish.


CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

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