Guest Column by Cecil County Editor Dan Meadows: Publishing is a Dying Industry

by Dan Meadows

Publishing is a dying industry. Cutbacks are everywhere, bankruptcies are more and more common. It seems as if every day that goes by sees the fall of another newspaper or magazine. It’s gotten so bad that even publishing company executives, a notoriously hard-headed and oblivious bunch, have started to publicly admit that major changes in direction are needed for the industry itself to survive. Print is dead, we are being told, the internet has killed it. Don’t believe it.

For one, I don’t subscribe to the theory that print publishing is on its last legs. Honestly, just try and image a world where there are no newspapers or magazines, no leaflets or brochures, no circulars arriving in the mail everyday. You can’t, can you? That’s because print publishing is a very distinct and effective method for reaching people that the internet, whatever its improvements in efficiency and cost, is just currently not capable. Maybe someday, possibly even soon, there will exist the technology to provide the content electronically that has the same portability, tactile feel and full range of usefulness of printed publications, but that day is not today.

Decades of Short-Signed Decision Making347px-cecil_whig_front_page

That being said, there is a severe sickness permeating the industry itself, and it’s one that first presented symptoms years ago, long before the internet was a serious challenger. What we’re seeing today is less the result of the internet replacing print publishing and more a consequence of decades of short-sighted decision making. The current poor financial climate has exacerbated a progression of events that was already in motion, and the state of the publishing industry today was far from unpredictable. In fact, with or without the emergence of other means of distributing content, I’m certain the economic hardships being thrust upon the industry as a whole would have come about anyway.

That’s not to say that the internet hasn’t lit a fire under an entrenched industry that has arrogantly held its position for too long. It has become a convenient and useful tool for many people outside the industry, including the blog you are reading right now, to connect with people of all stripes. The one thing is hasn’t done, however, is produce a realistic business model to replace print publishing. And I am one voice suggesting that it won’t any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe the internet is likely the single most important development to our civilization in my lifetime. It provides an almost inexhaustable array of possibilities to people like me-editors, writers, designers-the creative types who have long been responsible for what you see and read. It has leveled the playing field for marketing and distribution of content. But again, what it hasn’t done is create the ability to make money.

There are a number of reasons for this, the first being that print publishing is an almost perfect medium for presenting advertising. Even the best websites with all of their bells and whistles, all of their connectivity, can’t begin to match a magazine or a newspaper’s ability to focus the attention of the reader on the advertising. In fact, the very nature of the internet makes avoiding or ignoring advertisements even easier than ever. And who is going to pay anything significant for ads on someone’s website when for a small fraction of the price, they could setup an entire site all their own and have access to the same potential means of distribution? Yes, the internet is a marvel of networking and communication, but the savior of publishing as some believe? Far from it.

The Cecil Whig Has Suffered

As many of us are aware, our local newspaper, The Cecil Whig, has suffered from the economic downturn severely enough that there have been numerous companywide layoffs since the beginning of the year. And while many former Chesapeake Publishing employees have been shown the door in a rather unceremonious fashion, what we haven’t seen is anyone being brought in to replace them. How can it be that a company that size can rid itself of more that two dozen employees that I know of, and yet still function? It is because they have long suffered from the first symptom of an ailing industry, an uncontrolled swelling of staff.

This is a problem that really began when publishing companies started to get too large, and made worse when the even larger corporate media conglomerates started to gobble up the smaller, independent companies. Chesapeake Publishing itself, once containing a stable of dozens of publications that covered an impressive geographic area of the central East Coast, began to fall victim to this trend over ten years ago. At various times, bits and pieces of Chesapeake Publishing were sold off to other, larger entities, companies that now are finding themselves spread too thin to be fiscally viable. The outlying portions of the company were slowly peeled away, leaving the central core of the Easton and Elkton plants standing alone until they too were sold to a company called American Consolidated Media (ACM) based in Dallas, TX. ACM itself was snapped up by an even larger corporation based in Australia as part of a buying spree that included something like 300 small newspapers and publishing companies all over this country alone. Your local news, brought to you courtesy of Adelaide, Australia.

When These Companies Get Larger

When these companies get larger, the first thing you see is the increased compartmentalization of the workload. Where once, a magazine could function just fine with a staff of a half a dozen dedicated employees or less, now that same publication would require smaller efforts from dozens of people, spread throughout the company, very few of them focused intently on the publication at hand, just the immediate work. For designers, this meant doing ads or page layout for dozens of publications. Staff writers would have articles appear in a different publication every day of the week, all under the same company banner. While this seems efficient, what it really did was to separate the creative minds, the true value in any publishing company, from any lasting connection or involvement in the publications themselves. They became hourly work-for-hire people. They weren’t artists anymore, they had become tradesmen, earning an hourly wage without ever really grasping the total effect of their work. And this trend, while fiscally reasonable at first, has had a long-term catastrophic impact on the quality of the publications being produced.

In my experience, there is simply no replacement for a staff of people working together towards the same ends. Writers and editors that help with suggestions for sales efforts, graphic designers who help with billing, delivery people who bring fresh ideas for content to the table, everyone interested in their specific areas of expertise, but always with an understanding and vision of the overall goal. A group of dedicated, creative people working together on a publication will outperform one constructed and produced by a pool effort every time. And this is the primary area where publishing has gone horribly wrong. They’ve lost sight of the products, in fact their reason for existing. Everything in publishing begins and ends with the products. But when key decisions are being made by people half a continent or further away, who have never even seen the publication at hand, let alone have a working understanding of it, only chaos can result.

On a budget sheet, the creative types are only red lines, raw expenses. There is no way to properly view the revenue generated by a good editor or a good designer. There is no simple, direct financial correspondence between quality publications and sales figures. Circulation is another, even larger red line item on the budget. How much revenue does the average copy bring in? How can you tell, let alone nail it down to clear, irrefutable figure? The connection is most assuredly there, but it’s an ephemeral one that can’t easily be turned into static figures and defined so sharply. Without an understanding of what actually is going on in publishing, these numbers can look like ripe fruit when the time comes to pare down the budget.

Content and Circulation Get the Ax

Whenever a directive to cut expenses comes along, these are the two areas that get the brunt of the ax, circulation and content. And all too frequently, these expense cuts also come with advertising rate increases. How anyone can think this is a good idea is beyond me, but for publishing, this has been standard operating procedure for as long as anyone can remember. It’s why quality and readership have consistently dropped where the costs have consistently gone up. The simple fact is when you cut content, you are cutting readership. When you cut circulation, you are cutting readership. When you cut readership, you are cutting the exposure and results your advertisers are getting from their ads. And at the same time, you’re charging them more for it! Admittedly, in the short term, these cuts work. Most advertisers will pay a modest increase if the publication has generated sales for them in the past . It takes time for cuts in content to translate into lost readers, and cuts in circulation can go largely unnoticed for a short time, as well, their effects only truly being felt by advertisers who’s phones are now ringing a few times fewer each day. A company that engages in this will undoubtedly see a drastic improvement to the bottom line almost immediately, but this is a bill that will come due down the line. And again, we are where we are today because of this. Advertisers, ones who hadn’t already found better options for their money, and only too readily bailing on ads that have been showing less and less results. Readers are looking elsewhere in droves for content that just isn’t being delivered by the now-thinned out products they were used to. These effects aren’t strictly the result of the existence of the internet, or the downtrodden economy. These are wounds most definitely self-inflicted by an industry that got too large, too fast, and the bottom-line took on total dominance over the byline.

So, if publishing isn’t dying, what is going on? I think it’s transforming. These large conglomerates with vast arrays of publications are dying on the vine. They will continue to cut back and cut back and cut back, desperately clinging by their fingernails to a business model that they themselves have helped to destroy, until they’ve lost all relevance. The hard times there are far from over. In fact, I fully expect an extinction of sorts for these dinosaurs. But a few will survive, a few will be fortunate enough to have people of vision still in their employ who will understand what needs to happen to avoid a bad end. And the great vacuum left behind by the collapse of out-dated thinking will be a great place for those of us with initiative to start looking toward the future. Not one where your career is dependent on a corporate office 800 miles away, but on the very people you pass on the street every day, the people who actually read your work. It never should have changed from that in the first place.

Watch closely what happens over the next few years. There is much talk among struggling publishers of converting to internet-only business models. Don’t be fooled. This isn’t really progress, it’s the lazy way out. No printing costs, no distribution expenses, smaller staffs, it looks like a budget panacea. But it’s an illusion, and one that will ultimately expedite the end of many publishing companies. These moves are a last-ditch effort of sheer desperation by an industry that has largely ignored the possibilities of the internet since its inception. Do you really expect they will suddenly develop a successful money-making venture cranking out the same sub-standard work even more cheaply than before? Publishing, for an enterprise that has its roots in creativity and originality, is very much a copycat industry. There’s never been a good idea that some publisher somewhere didn’t rip off. Once one of the big boys dives all the way into this, many more will follow like lemmings, right over the cliff. And I say good riddance.

The smart media companies will take this down time for what it is, an opportunity to rethink, to recreate themselves in a way that is sustainable. It is also an excellent time to stock up on talent. With so many out of work, and so many more to follow, there are droves of talented, skilled free agents, as it were, sitting on the sidelines waiting for the phone to ring. Now is the time to put together a creative all-star team, gather the best and brightest to your operation, and cut them loose. Creative people are all the same, they can’t resist a good challenge, taking something that is accepted and long-standing and reimagine it in ways no one could have thought of before. These people have been marginalized by today’s publishing industry, much to its loss, and ironically, if there is going to be continued life for the industry, it will be these people who must lead the way. It’s not going to be the executive in the penthouse, with his expensive suits and $400 haircuts that reinvents publishing, it’s going to be someone experimenting with new ideas on their laptop sitting under a tree somewhere.

The daily newspaper may be a casualty

And it won’t be what it has been. The daily newspaper may well be a casualty of this transformation, but the essential work it has always done, the work that many companies have lost sight of, will be done in other ways. Magazines are better suited to survive and in fact, thrive once again in a new order, only now it clearly won’t be enough to just dump any old thing out on the street and expect people to throw money at you. Content will be pushed by market forces back in its rightful place. Those who develop a readership, nurse it instead of exploit it, will be the ones left standing when the dust settles. And we won’t have a solely digital world. We’ll have an integrated one, where print publications, digital publications and websites will all work together, providing a new, more expansive means of presenting content, of representing a market and, when it’s done properly, the money will be there. Because if there’s one thing that won’t change, it’s that businesses will always need a way to reach people.

Publishing has lost sight of that simple fact. Their job has always been to serve the needs of the people paying the bills. Recently, the industry has assumed an attitude of entitlement. “The advertisers will put up with whatever we decide. It’s enough just to exist, and they will keep cutting us checks in ever increasing numbers. We have no idea whether they’ve sold even a dollar’s worth of their products or services from the ad, and no reason at all to care whether or not they’re getting value, we just need to convince them to keep buying. And the readers, they’ll take whatever we give them and like it. They won’t even notice any changes.” Only now, after decades of taking their positions for granted, are these companies beginning to understand that when you stop giving your customers, both readers and advertisers alike, what they’re coming to you for, they quickly go elsewhere.

Many publishing companies are going through exactly what’s happening at the Cecil Whig. Shrinking, layoffs, cutbacks; whatever you want to call it. The real question is not whether they are necessary, for they undoubtedly are, but whether they’re being done as a means of moving forward, of changing, evolving and improving, or simply as a means of saving money on next month’s budget reports. You will be hearing from the companies that choose the first route for they will be the ones producing the publications you will read two, three, four years from now, both in print and online. Those who choose the latter path, you had better enjoy what’s left of them now because they won’t be around much longer. Evolve or die. Which type do you think the Whig is?

Editor’s Note: Dan Meadows is a writer, editor and publisher with over a decade’s experience and a track record of success in nearly every aspect of the publishing industry.  He has contributed to Somone Noticed before and we’re always pleased to have the opportunity to present pieces by this pro.

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4 responses to “Guest Column by Cecil County Editor Dan Meadows: Publishing is a Dying Industry

  1. I say digital is the wave of the future for daily news. It’s clean. Its efficient. It takes less staff. Best of all, no trees die. Yesterdays newspapers are tossed in the trash are sent to landfills. That is truly unforgivable in today’s environmental crisis. As to content, theoretically an ad can stay online forever, which is a heck of a lot longer than the day or two someone keeps a newspaper around. I for one would have no emotional upheavalwhatsoever if the two local dailies disappeared tomorrow. As long as I can get unlimited accurate and unbiased news online, I say bring it on! There could be, for example, a master hard copy somewhere, say at the publishers and one at the library to be kept as a permanent physical record. The digital version could be backed up and put in a non-editable format. The people get their news, the trees get to live. It’s win-win.
    People 1, Earth 1.
    Hug a tree today! :-)
    Don’t forget, National Arbor Day is April 24!

  2. Dan’s article is interesting . But the real reason most papers are in trouble is because they were sold to investors who didn’t put up real money to buy the papers but relied on easy credit and debt in the ‘boom’ years– so they had no cushion when the current ‘bust’ hit. it is pretty similar to the housing mess: people put little money down and paid too much for the house in the first place but it was all on credit, so “who cares.”
    So when the crisis hits, the homeowner tries to hold on by selling the copper gutters on the house, not spending money or effort to maintain the house, etc. so the house becomes an eyesore and its value goes down. The corporate media types have done the same thing.
    Sen. Ben cardin is putting in a bill that would let newspapers become non-profit, community owned operations. This is like national public radio or some magazines. It is a good idea but you need community support to do that. There is some talk about doing that in Baltimore for the Sun.

  3. To address a couple of these points, there is an interesting circumstance relating to an article I saw in today’s Whig that can illustrate a potential problem with an all-digital future for news. The article related to a man who was charged with molesting two younger children. The man in question has actually served time on a previous offense involving a 12-year-old girl back in 1995 or so. The article stated that the man had been currently attempting to have his conviction changed to probation before judgment and have his record expunged. Now, if he had been successful in this, where would there have been a record of that conviction if another circumstance like the one he’s being charged with now comes up? Currently, the old charges, conviction and such are on file in old copies of the paper. If it had been an all-digital world at that point, would past articles from 14 or 15 years ago even still exist, and what would be the process of accessing those today? Would the technology they were created on even still exist? Now, anyone can keep an archive of the daily paper. What happens when the paper itself becomes the sole caretaker of this information? How much will be lost out of neglect or purposely wiped out? Do we trust the publishers, online or otherwise, to maintain this information for potential future reference?

    And as to the second comment, you are absolutely correct that the larger companies bought up the smaller fish using credit. And having worked for companies on two occasions that were up for sale at the time, the standard procedure was to cut every possible expense to make the bottom line as attractive as possible in the short term (as artificial as that was), so the real operating expenses were undoubtedly higher than the purchaser was expecting. The problem now is that they’ve already sold the gutters off the house and everything else of value to keep going. Where do they go from here? With regards to Chesapeake Publishing, I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, the two plants, Easton and Elkton, actually shed their remaining publications and convert to strictly commercial printing. Newspapers as non-profits are an interesting idea, but who at this point has extra money laying around to donate. And a quality newspaper, especially a daily, is a very expensive proposition. But hey, give it another year or so, and you might be able to buy the Whig at a bankruptcy auction. I’d bid 50 bucks.

  4. Thanks everyone for interesting additional comments on this important subject. There is a great deal of complexity to this situation, of course. The financial aspect is what is causing such a quick wide-spread collapse of the system, which is being accelerated by a deep, deep recession.

    But legacy media (including, in particular, our local print product) had been working at building up to this point, and the economy just accelerates a trend that was going to play out over a longer period. Go back and examine the Whig, beginning say as late as the mid-80s. You will see a sharp, continual decline in local content. You will also see a decline in the depth and quality of the editorial matter. Then follow the progression and watch the continual decline year after year. In the past couple of years, they had virtually abandoned the readers as they filled it up with stale old wire copy. I got better fresh story off the news channels and from quality newspapers.

    Then when the publishers and executives were absolutely clueless about what to do with technology, we just added another nail to the coffin. Think of how much stuff a newsroom staff of 11 or 12 people could crank out if their labors were combined with the efficiencies and the speed provided by the net.

    In the era when large department stores were family owned, one of the family members once said I know that 50% of my advertising dollars are wasted, but I don’t know which 50%. Apply that to these local markets as your daily was losing readers for decades. What effective way did you have to reach potential customers and the effectiveness of what you had was declining. Advertisers were probably figuring out that situation.

    We’re going to always have news, including local news. The smart ones will figure it out before its too late (change is always hard and often resisted), and newcomers will move into the market opportunities

    Don’t get me wrong my newspapers have always been very important to me. Forty-plus years ago I looked with anticipation for the arrival of my weekly newspapers (The Whig & Democrat) and I read them carefully, but as they abandoned quality local content my interest strayed to other outlets for my information. I’d often go over to to the back door of the Whig to get a friendly pressman to hand it out the back door to me late in the evening before the deliveries started Wed. morning. That’s exactly what newspapers want, readers that are going to see the advertisments.

    I should add to that the Whig editorial department has some excellent reporters, editors, and writers. The problems there, as Dan has noted on some other blogs, came from higher up, putting restrictions on what could be covered or what could be said about some people in leadership positions. Sometimes the management can be to familiar with their beat.

    An interesting comparison is the Kent County News, owned by the same corporation. Compare those two papers. My guess is that the Whig will soon go to once or twice a week distribution, and try to get caught up with the web, which would give them near real time deadlines for news.

    Historically speaking, even late in the 20th century, the Whig was a great, proud paper that covered its community very well. But somewhere along the way, financial conditions, technology, and management changed.

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