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Real Talk: What's up with newspapers?

Do you recall that one girl in high school who was too friendly?

I mean the sweet girl who really just wanted to be liked, the girl whom all the jocks would take behind the gym after school to rehearse birds-and-bees lessons, but they would never take her out on a date or acknowledge her in a crowded room full of other students.

Nowadays, newspapers are that girl. And everyone who takes their too often free content online for granted is a jock.

Yeah, I know that this example will not convince anyone anytime soon to offer me the job of modernizing Aesop's Fables, but it's the analogy I gave a reader who emailed me several days ago to ask the question in the headline of this post. So it'll have to do.

The reader's question was prompted by news that my paper, the Miami Herald, had slashed jobs this week in order to help parent company McClatchy cut overall budget, and by news about other papers on the verge of disaster from coast to coast.

My first instinct was to reassure the reader, the way a parent who'd just lost his job (or taken a pay cut) reassures his teenager that everything will be alright and that the people still want the news done well and delivered in some form of print...just not necessarily on paper.

But then I thought about it and decided that sort of response to the reader would have been disingenuous.

Things have change inside and outside newspapers.

For example, I've been trained to shoot and edit video now. Ten years ago if an editor had asked me to even consider such training I'd probably have given a saditty answer to the effect of "I'm a writer. Let someone else do it."

Now, for the sake of maintaining until the news delivery method that will save the industry is found, I'm ready to get my commercial driver's license and add newspaper delivery truck driver to my repertoire.

So instead of coddling, I figured I'd tell the reader some of the truth...as I see it:

  • The radio and TV talking heads' argument that newspapers are struggling 'cause average Americans stopped reading them 'cause papers are politically biased is bogus. I'm not saying there isn't some bias sometimes in some papers. But newspapers are struggling 'cause the economy is terrible and businesses aren't advertising as much as they used to. If it was a matter of simply reaching the public, in South Florida, for example, the Herald still reaches more consumers than any other local media outlet, print or broadcast. But it's more than reach. Businesses don't have big ad budgets. 
  • Newspapers are also hurting 'cause they haven't figured out how to fully capitalize on Internet traffic. TV stations and networks haven't figured that out either. But you wouldn't know it, since they never report their problems the way we do. True, only the Googles and Yahoos and porn companies of the world are making big bucks online these days, but if I had my way every news organization in this country - print and broadcast - that has a Web site would set a date and time and simultaneously begin charging for content. It might stem the tide of content theft and "borrowing" between organizations. And if there's no free alternative online, then maybe readers will finally, even if grudgingly, begin registering on their favorite sites and setting up billing accounts. You can't get the paper at the newsstand for free. You can, but only if the guy running the newsstand isn't looking. And you can get a free subscription to some papers, but only until that trial period runs out and you start getting the bill in the mail. So why shouldn't you pay to read it online? Some working person researched, gathered, and compiled that info.
  • With our society becoming one big reality TV show, where consumers like to feel they have a connection to the people on the screen, I sort of feel like newspapers failed to borrow from the broadcast news formula and offer up print journalists as "personalities," so readers could follow and establish a loyalty to their favorites, the same way they do with favorite evening news anchors. Yes, newspapers have columnists and in recent years bloggers. But they're still a minority of print journalists.

Again though, I'm not a professional analyst. I'm just a squirrel trying to hoard a few nuts in case, as Young Jeezy says, "it's gonna be a cold summer."

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get "fitted" for a mop handle and learn to operate the scaffolding that the window cleaners use.

Just kidding...I think.

PS. Follow me at http://twitter.com/jamesburnett

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Wavemancali

I honestly am puzzled at the newspaper's difficulties when it comes to revenue streams.

The actual purchase price of the newspaper has never been their main revenue stream, it has always been the advertisers.

It would seem to me that advertisers would still want the presence in the newspaper even when it shifted to the online medium.

It is not difficult at all to set up a web page to mimic the look of a traditional paper and to even increase ad space while still keeping a dedicated audience looking for local news coverage.

What you lose in the sales of the physical paper, you save in cost of pressmen, circulation staff, paper, ink, press maintenance, etc. It's the content that is your bread and butter and writers like yourself should be the last against the wall when the revolution comes (to paraphrase Douglas Adams).

I used to work security at The Globe and Mail in Canada so I saw the cost heavy back end of newspaper production and distribution quite closely.

The CEO

I notice that Verizon advertizes on your blog. As Wavemancali points out, don't adverisers pay the bills? And the classified ads too, naturally, although you don't have any classifieds on your blog.

Is enhancing the newspaper blog with some stories from places like the AP wire to increase traffic to make the advertisers happy important enough to not charge for the site, and let people copy from the site?

I'm not a newspaper analyst either. Ithink all I have done is to replicate the paper model online.

Carlos Miller

"Ten years ago if an editor had asked me to even consider such training I'd probably have given a saditty answer to the effect of 'I'm a writer. Let someone else do it.'"

That's the problem. If the newspapers had the foresight ten years ago, perhaps things wouldn't be so bad today. But they didn't.


"Newspapers are also hurting 'cause they haven't figured out how to fully capitalize on Internet traffic. TV stations and networks haven't figured that out either. But you wouldn't know it, since they never report their problems the way we do."

If there were massive layoffs at TV stations and networks, surely somebody would report it. But it doesn't appear that there has been massive layoffs. The truth is, they don't have to spend millions printing a paper that people are not reading so they've been ahead of the game for decades.


"I'm ready to get my commercial driver's license and add newspaper delivery truck driver to my repertoire."

You don't think those jobs are becoming obsolete?


"if I had my way every news organization in this country - print and broadcast - that has a Web site would set a date and time and simultaneously begin charging for content."

Wouldn't that be price fixing, which is illegal?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_fixing


I'll leave you with a comment I posted on Bob Norman's blog and Miami Beach 411 that sums up my feelings:

The death of the newspaper industry can be blamed on one thing: Greed.

Starting in the late 1990s and lasting through the early 2000s, newspaper companies began to conglomerate on a massive scale.

Companies like Gannett, Media News and Tribune began buying up entire markets where large daily metros and smaller suburban papers once competed in a healthy manner.

These were newspapers that were family owned or operated by smaller regional companies.

They were content with having a ten percent profit margin, which is considered decent in most industries.

But with the conglomeration of the newspapers, the stock holders suddenly took control as opposed to the local owners, who had a vested interest in covering their own communities.

The stock holders didn’t care about that. They wanted profits of more than 20 percent.

Besides, once they bought out all the competing newspapers in a region, there was no longer a need to go the extra mile journalistically because it wasn’t like they were going to get scooped anymore.

In fact, papers who once fought tooth and nail for stories suddenly started sharing stories. This took place when I was working for the San Bernardino Sun in the late 1990s and we became part of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group along with several other newspapers that used to be our competition.

In order to streamline their business model, companies began adopting strategies like the one you just described. Gannet started this trend in what became known as McNews or cookie-cutter journalism.

It doesn’t really work because at a time when information is so readily available on the internet, the last thing you want to do is dumb down your paper.

During this time, the companies began an unsettling trend in promoting non-journalists to managerial editorial positions.

You can imagine the effect this had on a newsroom’s morale.

So naturally, circulation continued to fall and suddenly these major companies who wanted to buy out every newspaper in the country were mired in debt.

But rather than blame themselves, they blamed it on the internet.

C...

I have been a jack of all trades for a long time but it pays to be a bit flexible to keep yourself valuable in multiple areas.

The Truth

Your dismissive attitude about the left-leaning content of newspapers being partly responsible for their ills is an example of what is wrong with papers. The fact is newspapers lean left and often do so with little regard for logic or credibility. Folks understand this now and simply have marginalized you and your reach.

While conservative radio and FOX TV listenership and viewership (and consequently adverstising) have risen, most newspapers, MSNBC and other left-leaning mags have lost their audience and advertisers. The Wall Street Journal's circulation has not declined. The New York Post's readership has not declined. Both have more conservative editorial stances -- or at least aren't in the tank for the liberal left.

You can argue your paper doesn't have a left-leaning agenda but let me share how quite the opposite is true.

The Miami Herald editorial stance is that it is for abortion. It is for gay marriage. It is for closing Guantanamo. It endorsed Obama. It criticized Naugle in Fort Lauderdale.

And the best example of your liberal stupidity: Your paper, the Miami Herald, spent years of space and other resources reporting how corrupt former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez was. But this past election, as Martinez ran as a left-leaning democrat for congress, your paper inexplicably endorsed him over the Republican, one of the Diaz-Balart brothers. How can this happen?

And, to top it off, your paper endorsed the other Diaz-Balart brother in a neighboring district knowing that both Diaz-Balart brothers vote identically on most issues. So you endorse one Diaz-Balart for his record but endorse the corrupt democratic opponent of the other Diaz-Balart? Not only is that stupid, but it reeks of agenda newspapering.

I know you will dismiss these facts and opinions as the rants of a conservative. All I can tell you is open your eyes because only a blind man would see the current trends for newspapers and dismiss my argument.

Karmyn R

My husband works in the paper industry and one of his biggest clients just lost their newsprint business. So - not having newspapers effects more than just the News companies.

Recently we read a statistic that every child who is ever going to read a newspaper has already been born. Sign of the times.

mplsk

I haven't bought a newspaper in over ten years. (And here in Minneapolis- St. Paul we still have a two paper market.) I could no longer stomach their left leaning bias. I likewise haven't watched tv news for a similar amount of time for the same reason. We also have a weekly alternative paper, the "City Pages", which is given away free. Its proudly "progressive" leanings make it unreadable.

Pamela

locally the newspaper is losing their advertising because the businesses get more response from radio and tv

I only read the local paper for local info -- as by the time I get the newspaper all the front news is "old" -- heard it in the a.m or yesterday on TV or read it on internet.

Perhaps you work to close to the source to see any bias. I see the slant often -- trying to color stuff up to attract the readers.

DrBear

All right, all you conservatives, if you think the media is so biased, why haven't you started your own - with reporting, not opinion spouting? Fox News doesn't count; its news reporting is so-so compared to any of the three networks and its ratings lead is strictly because of its right-wing commentary. The Wall Street Journal is the best you have, but its reporting is straight down the middle and I don't think it's what you want. The Ptitsburgh paper slants toward what R.M. Scaife likes or dislikes. Radio? Rush, Hannity, et al are NOT reporters; they comment on what reporters dig up. Create a real conservative news media - a successful one - and I will listen to your complaints. It's typical - your kind complain, but never provide any answer other than tax cuts, which you believe can cure cancer.

James B.

WavemanCali, good observations about the costs. I think the big thing that negates the savings is the fact that advertisers are not (yet?) willing to pay the same rate for placing ads online as they are for print. If I remember right, the exchange is for every dollar a paper makes from a print ad it makes just 10 cents for an equivalent Web ad.

Monty, all good questions. But I think I partially answered 'em with my response to WavemanCali: Web ads just don't pay as much as print ads. So truthfully Web advertising really isn't paying the bills, even as print circulation declines and online readership steadily increases.

Carlos, you can't make a direct comparison between the size of newspaper staffs and TV station staffs. You worked in media, so you know the average local TV station employs just a tiny fraction of the people its rival local newspaper employs. So it's not necessarily true that if local TV stations had layoffs they'd get reported - not if those stations don't hang out their dirty laundry. Also, I wouldn't think all the news orgs charging simultaneously for their Web content would qualify as price fixing, unless they were all charging the exact same thing. I'm not advocating that. I'm saying they should all charge. I don't care what they charge or how their charges compare to one another. I'm just saying they should charge, period.

C, I hear ya. In college I worked as a machinist in an aircraft repair and upgrade facility. If things get dramatically worse, I'll dust off my old tool kit ;-)

The Truth, your chosen nickname belies the fact that your email address bounced back as being a fake, after you posted your comment.

At any rate "Truth," this must be the first time you've ever read my blog. If it wasn't you'd know better than to try to throw tired labels at my like liberal this or liberal that. I've got friends and readers from both ends of the political spectrum - people who've taken the time to study my writing and not make snap judgements - and they'll tell you that, if anything, I'm as close to neutral as you're gonna get.

As for dismissing your opinion, again I know you're new to my blog, 'cause otherwise you'd know i don't dismiss any opinions on my blog, except for those that engage in personal attacks like calling me a "stupid liberal" without knowing anything about me.

Read my post again. I did not deny the existence of some bias in some news reports. What I denied was that accusations of bias are responsible for the plight of newspapers these days. A lack of advertising, sparked by the bad economy is responsible. If you're gonna call yourself "The Truth," don't make accusations you can't back. And don't try to play circular logic with my words.

I don't care about political parties. I care about common sense. And again, if you'd read my work more thoroughly instead of passing snap judgments you'd know that.

Finally, if I was the evil liberal spawn of an evil liberal paper that you seem to think I am I'd have done the least American thing of all with your comment: deleted it!

But I didn't, 'cause I don't believe in censorship. So thanks for writing, and I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the message conveyed in this blog post.

KarmynR, I saw that stat on newspaper readers already being born. Crazy! Makes me feel old.

Mplsk, I'm just curious, where do you get local news then? Not passing judgment. I'm really just curious.

Pamela, I love you, my friend. But I have to tell you what I told The Truth: go back and re-read that part of this post. I did not say there is no bias in news reports. What I denied and denounced was the theory that newspapers are hurting because of political bias - real or percieved. I never said there isn't bias. I said there is some. One hundred percent objectivity isn't possible, except by robots. I wrote that what bias there is has almost nothing to do with newspaper's current money woes. Those are caused by sluggish advertising, which is caused by the weak economy.

Dr. Bear, thanks for the comment. When it comes to news delivery I try to stay out of that debate over which direction the media leans on the political scale, unless I have to defend myself against accusations of being part of some sort of undercover bias machine. I do agree with you though that there's plenty of media bias on the right side of the political spectrum too. Again, total objectivity's not possible for humans, regardless of who they voted for.

Kay

I hadn’t actually heard your number 1.

As for 2… It has always seemed that there is this attitude of “internet = free”… email, chatting, news, videos, social networking, job boards, games…. There is a whole bunch of free content out there. I understand that we should be paying for it on one level but I can’t seem to wrap my head around how it would work or even if it would work… because then wouldn’t there just be incentive for someone else to have free content (with banner ads or whatnot) that would drive the traffic? In short, I don’t have a solution.

And 3. I think some of us DO have our fave columnists or at least news sources…I stalk SFgate but tend to avoid the laziness of the Washington Post… and of course I am a fan or you :P

kathy foster

James, glad to see you are still employed. Keep up the good work. --one of your editors who volunteered for an earlier buyout

Christine Thresh

Carlos Miller's analysis was right on.

It seems to me this is the perfect time for small, local newspapers to get going. We owned two weekly papers and did pretty darn well. Advertising is easy to sell because it is cheaper and very local.
This is an opportunity for all the laid-off reporters to start their own papers. A local paper would have to have an online edition, too. That's easy enough to do.
The online news sources can pull from small papers when issues are timely.

James B.

Kay, you flatter me. But I'll take it!

Kathy, thanks! I appreciate the encouraging word. I hope you're doing well.

Folks, Kathy is one of the good editors I described a couple months ago.

Christine, it's an ambitious idea. I like Carlos's idea in theory. I just question how local journalists, who may already be living modestly, are going to come up with enough cash to float them until their personal news operations take off. Think about it, it would take a lot of cash up front - loans, grants, whatever. Whether the money's being made by one giant corporation or 100,000 tiny papers run by one or two or three journalists, it's still gonna take a lot of money for journalists to all make a living, using this model.

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