Friday, September 9, 2011

Out With the Old...

Wow, what a depressing week in the newspaper business again. Layoffs here, layoffs there, as Charles Apple notes. One of my former colleagues was laid off in Dallas for the second time there. Yeah, we laid him off, too.

At times like this I have to turn to my favorite upbeat source of news about traditional newspaper operations, News & Tech. As Chuck Moozakis writes:

"I understand that the Web and mobile audiences are important. But in order for newspapers to serve those audiences ... print is the engine that must be carefully nurtured and maintained."

He quotes a consultant, Sam Wagner, as saying, "We seem to want to leave the broadsheet here to die; in the States nobody wants to take the chance to really shake up their product and really try to redo it, whether it's content, size, or shape. Circulation is declining, page counts are declining, but people are afraid to change. To do nothing seems to be on a path to death to me ... What do they have to lose?"

And as Jim Chisholm -- boy, I want to meet this guy someday, I may have to go to France to do it -- says,"Don't believe everything you see in our own medium. ... Only about 8 percent of the industry's revenues are from digital. In the United States, that percentage is a bit higher, around 12 percent, but still nowhere near enough to sustain the business."

Of course, to this, digital fans would say -- not enough to sustain the business you have, but abandon that business and it is. In the old days, if I remember this figure right, you budgeted newsroom expenses as around 11 percent of your costs (since most of your money goes to paper, ink, plates, trucks, and carriers). As John Paton, whose newly ascendant Journal Register Co. just apparently engineered a back-door coup of Dean Singleton's Media News Group, said this week, online revenue by the end of the year will cover the cost of newsrooms. Chisholm's figure indicates that is correct. The issue then is, at what point do you say you also covered the cost of ad salespeople, business-side employees, and (if you're doing a paywall or replica edition) whatever you call your circulation department and your increasingly important promotions and community events departments, at which point you say, shut off the presses and let all those pressmen, drivers, and contracts with ink companies go. While Paton is careful to say that print will be around "indefinitely," any copy editor can tell you that word has two meanings.

U.S. newspaper companies say they are committed to whatever platform the customers (ad and reader) prefer, but it's clear many of them want to help consumers give up print, whereas in the rest of the world that pressure is not so strong. If you see it as inevitable, that's a good thing. But one of the mottos of this blog has been to challenge the idea, "If current trends continue..." What do you want the current trend to be? Who do you want your customers to be? If your definition of "local news" is "we have a few reporters to do the big stuff but most local news is Mrs. Smith putting her announcement of the book club on our site free," then heck yes you want to tell your print readers they're stupid and get out. The future then is, have volunteers do most of the work for you, and reap the profits.

Admittedly, News and Tech's advertising base is people selling print products. And its columnist Marc Wilson, reporting on a Borrell Associates survey, noted that a "panel of industry experts" -- this column was about Yellow Pages, so I don't know what industry this is -- 21 percent said "fewer than 100 daily newspapers in North America will exist in print form" within three to five years, and 63 percent in total said that would happen in 20 years or longer. It's hard to know what to do with that -- does that mean "exist in print form every day" or "exist  in any print form at all," and also hard to know if that the people answering knew that means 1,300 out of the 1,400 or so daily newspapers in the United States and Canada, taking the typical American position that Mexico is not part of North America -- but even admit N&T's upbeat attitude, the views of the Minneapolis publisher editor that in more than five years, the Star Tribune might be a Sunday print product with daily digital news -- well, it makes you wonder if Moozakis is, probably like me, just a person who still loves printed newspapers even as the country says, go fish.

A final word on layoffs. We journalists and our amen corner -- academics, goo-goo advocates, and dyed-in-the-wool readers -- tend to believe that cuts in editorial staffing will inevitably lead to less readership and thus less advertising. But advertisers have always used tons of media that don't involve editorial staffing, and readers complain about reading wire stories they've already seen on TV or the Web -- i.e., big stories -- not about wire stories that didn't make the top of Google News; they complain about a paucity of local news, but don't really care if the local news was written by the local antiques dealer. There's probably a relationship there between news and advertising, but if it were as strong as we think, news departments wouldn't have to deal with continual staffing cuts. People generally just want to read something they haven't read before.

ADDED NOTE: Thanks to Vince Tuss for correcting the title of the Minneapolis executive quoted.


Anonymous said...

Thinking about the declines in print circulation in the U.S. and the apparent health of many overseas print products raised this question: How is distribution different?

Is it that people buy more papers off the rack because they are out on foot more? Is is that the papers are distributed by employees, not contractors? Do people pay more for online services so the cost of a newspaper is still competitive?

Maybe I read the wrong sites, but I don't think I've seen much about how successful print papers are distributed outside the U.S. It's as though everyone in news is convinced that what's in the paper sells it, and they expect news to sell the paper and admit that ads may well sell the paper. But maybe the way the paper is sold sells the paper.

Barbara Phillips Long

rknil said...

Wait. I thought page design was supposed to bring readers running. They were supposed to drop their cereal bowls in the morning. None of that happened?

Seriously, these astonishments at the failings of newspapers lost their impact a while ago. Newsrooms destroyed themselves from within, to be blunt. We've covered this already.

As soon as newspapers stopped trying to focus on relevant things -- content, balance, not screwing up basic things on a daily basis, etc. -- they became irrelevant.