No Reader Left Behind or Observations on the Newspaper Industry

Anyone casually following legacy media’s slow decline knows the challenges this important industry faces across the nation.  These market conditions are not just ones faced by local papers like ours.  No its systemic, especially for the hordes of publishers that took enormous profits, while failing to leverage the value of their brands by adapting to changes, maintaining or strengthening local coverage, and grabbing new media opportunities.  Now with last week’s stock market crash, we’ve got to imagine the trend will accelerate as advertisers large and small pull back on placements or move to the Net.  There are a few sites that allow us to quickly gather intelligence on what’s going on in the industry.  One of those blogs is www.newspaperdeathwatch.com.

Our region was once filled with spirited, independent, feisty dailies, from Crisfield to Rising Sun and every town of any size in between.  The Daily Banner in Cambridge was one of those but I’ve watched its painful decline for years.  A corporate owner cut newsroom staff to an absolute minimum, replaced local content with wire service copy, and failed to get the idea about emerging technologies.  They had the formula just right for running a fine Maryland newspaper into the ground.  I’ve read the Banner’s back issues from a few decades ago so I know they were covering their turf with a great energy, as any paper should.  On a local Cambridge discussion board, where subscribers dialogue about the decline of this Dorchester County publication, we hear similar comments from long time readers.

Well it was bound to happen.  All one had to do was pickup a copy to see the obvious for something had to be done for this ailing daily.  As it’s editor said in it’s final weekday paper, the Banner was short on local news and short on advertising.  Thus at the end July the publisher wrote that the Banner was getting stronger for it would no longer hit the street every weekday morning!  Twice a week readers would start receiving an issue filled with local content.

We’re waiting to see if they start approaching local coverage with the zeal that will let them rebuild readership.  For years now, national and international news, which has largely become a commodity product,  is stale by the time the print product hits your doorstep in the morning thanks to the speed of the news cycle caused by many 24-hour news channels and the Internet.

One could easily write the same thing about big city dailies.  They’ve followed the same business model, as papers were sold and bought.  It seems each publisher cut in exactly the wrong place, the newsroom, so those once strong dailies pulled back from covering Maryland or the Philadelphia area. Exactly the wrong business model.

I always said take care of the content and everything else will largely take care of itself.  Make the paper one that readers eagerly grab up each morning.  Then leverage your daily circulation to drive visitors to the free web sites where all the “news that wouldn’t fit into print” can be found.  Imagine the many extra sports photos or local happenings images one could crowd on that cost-effective distribution system, which would cause even more clicks.  Be sure not to charge for your online content, but let it out from behind bars since you want hits in order to deliver eyeballs for advertisers.  If you don’t do that, there are plenty of entrepenuers such as Craig’s List, Yahoo News, the television stations and hordes of others that will sell the clicks.  Finally these days, the barreriers for entry into mass communication have been lowered to virtually nothing so anyone can establish a citizen journalism site.  It’s all rather obvious.

The Whig historically is a fine example of a small town weekly and then daily, one that I eagerly rushed to each morning.   Today they have some of the best talent you’re going to fine in small daily newsrooms   I’m sure those professionals know what the readers want and how to deliver it in a lively style.  If I were the publishers and executives, I’d listen to the pros in the news business.  They’ll know what to do in tough economic times.  I still recall decades later some of the fines, columns written by their executive editor, Terry Peddicord.  He’s a newspaperman from the old school, who writes the kind of material I want to read if there aren’t constraints, economic or otherwise.  That news room has many other pros too.  I suspect most of them do across the nation, but the publishers and the business people have been busy managing the enterprise.

Oh, by-the-way, a little controversy and investigative reporting, just a little, is a good thing.  I remember the golden era for some of the big city dailies when investigative reporting delivered subscribers.  The Whig has done some of that too in days gone by.  I remember Neil Thomas, Ken Kunnelly (not sure about spelling), Justin Quinn and a few others.  I’ve seen Carl Hamilton turn out some fine pieces that I read word-by-word and saved for future reference.  They have plenty of other talented people on the editoral department’s staff that I haven’t mentioned so if the business people would get to news people, they’d have a better product.

That’s what I say.   

 

The Daily Banner, Cambridge, announces its getting stronger since it will stop daily weekday distribution, but will produce issues twice a week.

The Daily Banner, Cambridge, announces its getting stronger since it will stop daily weekday distribution, but will produce issues twice a week.

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2 responses to “No Reader Left Behind or Observations on the Newspaper Industry

  1. Your excellent analysis of the local newspaper scene is right on target. However, as one who spent some 30 years in and around the news biz outside Cecil County, the issues are more complex in the bigger media galaxy.
    Newspapers used to be family owned, for the most part. They had a sense of duty, pride in the community and leadership. When the Baltimore Sun was family owned, they were quite willing to take a little less money in their own pockets and spend for foreign bureaus, larger editorial staff, etc. But by the time it gets down to the third generation, that civic duty tends to fade and the grandkids want to get the quick bucks of a sale.
    Then when a corporate buyer comes in, like Times-Mirror did at the Sun, the changes begin. Times-Mirror (as in Los Angeles Times) was a pretty good owner of the Sun, at least initially. Then it was sold to Tribune (as in Chicago Tribune) and the hell began. Then Tribune was sold to a real estate investor, Sam Zell, who has no knowledge or interest in the substance or civic duty of journalism. It’s all about $.
    The Sun has abandoned foreign bureaus, merged and cut back its Washington bureau, and laid off or bought out staff with years and years of Maryland knowledge, replaced by kids with no knowlege or real interest but they do work cheaper.
    It is all about corporate greed. With the Whig’s sale to a subsidiary of an Australian media empire, throw globalization into the mix and you have a prescription for journalistic disaster!

  2. As a follow up, I would note that The Washington Post Co., although a publicly traded corporation, has its stock structured so that the Graham family really controls all the voting shares. Interestingly, the biggest money-maker for theW. Post Co. is its Kaplan educational test prep subsidiary. For quite a few years, it has out-earned the newspaper. So one way to ‘save’ journalism is to have the corporate ownership diversify into other businesses that, if the controlling owners are so inclined as the Graham family is, can subsidized the news operations.
    The New York Times Co. has a similar stock structure with the Sulzburger family in charge of most voting shares. But they don’t have a non-news business kicking out revenues to subsidize the news operations so the Times has been a frequent target of Wall St. ‘raiders’ trying to get higher stock prices for their own profits. So far, the Times has resisted and they have increasingly turned to online initiates to protect their turf.

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