How to Kill a Newspaper

There is a mountain of evidence that daily newspapers around the country have been in economic difficulty for the past 10 years. It is all over the pages of the very newspapers in trouble. The hurt really came during the downturn in 2008 and 2009. The nation’s collapse from the economic “norm” was intensified by weakened consumer confidence translating into diminished advertising revenue along with poor performing 401(k)retirement plans, stock market investments and an abundance of pink slips. Talking heads, columnists, advertisers, family members, even many newspaper editors and publishers claimed to know why and their diatribes always ended with, ” Nobody reads newspapers anymore!”

That reaction reflects the diminishing print circulation of America’s newspapers, but it is far from accurate. The Blade has Sunday and daily paid circulation that serve an average well above 100,000 and this newspaper gets eight million monthly hits and a million unique users on our website. That is a lot of folks reading our newspaper and its content.

Most newspapers in the United States are owned by large “chains” or companies that own a multitude of newspapers in diverse markets. There are approximately 1397 daily papers with total paid circulation of 46,278,000 (in 2009) and 919 Sunday papers with 46,850,000 paid circulation (in 2009).When advertising  revenue plummeted, the large companies, their management, captured by a bean-counter stockholder reliant mentality, began cutting personnel; lowering page count by squeezing out editorial content with the intent of saving newsprint cost; eliminating profit-sharing; freezing then cutting pension plans; charging employees more for medical insurance and freezing wages. Their newsrooms were treated as if they were manned by engineers who produced no immediate revenue; an easy target to cut.

Most of the above are practical business management reactions to an economic environment that threatened the very existence of newspapers. I directed many of those expense reductions at The Blade. I helped manage implementation of many of them except for the news content reductions. There were some changes in the newsroom, whose editors report directly to John Robinson Block, but I agreed and lobbied for strengthening The Blade’s ability to cover the news in-depth.  We have added positions in the newsroom over the past two years. Here’s why. Reduce content, make the newspaper less relevant, and then who wants to read it? There’s nothing there but comics, the AP wire, Dear Abbey, some fancy graphics and the weather page. Readership and circulation drop, advertisers complain and the spiral into oblivion continues.

Now some newspaper owners and managers have gone even further and have committed their daily newspapers to eliminating publishing days. Many very good newspapers in markets across the country, where the strongest media presence is the daily/Sunday newspaper, will not publish a paper on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Or is it Saturday, or maybe they are there on Thursday and Sunday, but no it’s Sunday and Wednesday. Do you get my point?

Those publishers claim their web pages will take up the slack and then look you right in the eye and say,”it’s a digital world now. Our readers will be trained to accept us in a new way, but the content is the same!” Nonsense! It is way too soon to expect all newspaper readers to completely abandon the printed newspaper left on their porch or in the driveway, for any reason. Can you imagine that happening in Toledo? Our phones would melt.

What happens to obits? A death on a Sunday won’t be in the paper until Thursday or Sunday or ever? The big question is what happens to news coverage of the newspaper’s market? Where is our obligation to cover the lives and of the people who live and work in our market? I get it, the subscriber won’t get a paper for three days and just can’t wait for it to come on Thursday, it’s so exciting! Baloney, apathy will be paramount and subscription levels will drop like a rock thrown off the high level bridge in downtown Toledo.

The bean counters, and those they work for in these large newspaper companies, can’t see around the corner. They have no skin in the game of journalism, freedom of the press or anything close to it. All that matters is the bottom line, a healthy return to the stockholders, a healthy profit margin, a very balanced balance sheet! And while they are closing down publishing days , they are killing those newspapers. The skeletons that are left are mere shadows of their great pedigree. They are a rumbling in the graveyards! That’s not to say many of the owners or CEO’s of large newspaper companies don’t want to be the media of record in their communities. They are faced with an economic doomsday mentality exasperated by bean counters and they panicked.

They would say to me, “Ok smart guy, what would you do, how would you maintain the resources necessary to publish? You can’t publish if you can’t pay your bills, can you smart guy?” That’s a fair question, so here goes a straight answer. Get the number crunchers to help plan expense reductions that allows for more editors and reporters, more news hole, solid investigative journalism in both print and digital. Get expense reductions by outsourcing pre-press, printing and preprint inserting. Those are not our core business components. Begin deploying drone photo-journalism, live video streaming on web sites and ads in the digital newspaper , initiate micro-site web sites from the web site’s home page that cover surrounding communities with news content that wouldn’t get in the daily or Sunday pages and also allow for reader submitted content. Develop apps for the iPad and smart phones. Give them the newspaper on all electronic platforms 24/7.  Create an eBlade philosophy of producing a digital replica of the printed newspaper like we are doing at The Blade and market the heck out of it! (See below.) And then sell the heck out of all of them! Push up the number of eyeballs on the newspaper in whatever form its content takes.

There will come a time when a digital product will replace some print. As a newer generation of reader grows up it is likely they will not read a newspaper on paper. But we are not there. The time isn’t now. At The Blade we are planning to provide the reader with a printed and electronic version of that day’s paper to help balance the changing appetite  for news as we morph into more of the digital newspaper world. Our product is the brain-child of The Blade’s Chairman, Allan Block. He has hammered home to me and The Blade’s management team that the newspaper must have a digital replica available to everyone with a computer, iPad, and apps for the smart phone, iPad or whatever. The digital newspaper has to load in nano seconds, turn the page with a swosh, translate into 20 or more languages, turn photos into video, jump pages with one click and demonstrate an easily acquired advertising insert model. And it must replace the traditional newsroom front end computer system with a publishing system using the internet cloud. We’ll be ready in a couple of weeks to showcase a system and methodology that will reinvent the old model of newsgathering and publishing. In fact, it will save our industry. This new system is what I call the Harry Potter version of a newspaper.

The Blade is blessed to be owned by a family that gets it. They understand the vital importance of a daily newspaper to its community. They have the largesse and the dedication to using it to maintain The Blade as northwest Ohio’s strongest and largest news and advertising provider. The other guys who are cutting publishing days too soon are just committing murder.


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