The newspaper industry isn’t dead, but over the last four years it has faced more problems than it did in the previous 40 years. The result has been some massive changes in the way many newspapers do business. For the most part, the problems in the industry have been primarily among daily newspapers rather than community weekly newspapers. The reasons for that are many:
• Daily newspapers took a direct hit from the Internet when sites such as Craigslist began to take away classified advertising. Classified ads were a major source of profit for most daily newspapers. When classifieds migrated to digital, dailies felt it in their bottom line.
• Digital readership of news also hit daily newspapers hard. Many dailies began making all of their content available online for free. The result was predictable; readers stopped subscribing to print daily editions because they could get the same headlines online for free.
• The recession had a big impact on daily newspapers as traditional retail advertising slowed.
• Daily newspaper publishers, as a whole, are more bean counters than news people. When the tough times hit, they reacted by cutting back on local news staff and began relying more on wire service copy. That made many daily newspapers less interesting because there was less local news. Many daily subscribers reacted by dropping their print subscriptions.
• Most daily newspapers are owned by large media conglomerates. Those large corporations went on a spending spree during the boom years by buying up more and more newspapers at higher and higher prices. When the recession hit, those media groups were left with a huge amount of debt that they couldn’t pay back. In some cases, bankers now have more to say about how a newspaper operates than the media firm itself.
• Daily newspaper publishers are often scared of controversy. In tough times, many have reacted by spiking controversial stories, thus weakening the standing of those newspapers in the community. Daily publishers are notorious for being chicken when it comes to doing tough news stories that step on toes.
The result of all of that is now many daily newspapers across the country are cutting their print publication frequency to three days a week to save money.
What’s irritating about that is that many publishers haven’t been honest with their readers. Rather than saying up front that cutting print frequency is done to cut cost, many publishers try to spin the move by saying it will create a stronger digital presence.
But that’s insulting to readers; everyone knows it’s a cost-cutting move, so why not just say so?
Another trend is the belief by many daily publishers that print newspapers are dead and digital is king. Maybe, but so far digital can’t pay the bills. Newspaper websites simply can’t sell enough advertising online to generate the revenue needed to operate a newsroom.
Advertising across all mediums — print, online, radio, TV — is sold by how many eyeballs see that product. But digital online eyeballs don’t command a very high advertising rate because there are so many websites that exist. Digital eyeballs bring pennies in revenue compared to what print eyeballs bring.
The result is that while many daily newspapers are pouring more money and energy into digital distribution over print, they are getting fewer dollars from online advertising than they did with print.
Those of us in the weekly newspaper business haven’t been unscathed by some of these trends. Although not hooked on classified advertising for profit like the daily newspapers, weekly papers have been hurt by the overall economic downturn.
But weekly newspapers have been slower to cast their future to a digital-only world. While most weekly newspapers have websites, few weeklies give away all their content for free. And most weekly newspapers continue to rely mostly on local news and not on wire copy; consequently, weekly circulation has not crashed as it has with some dailies.
In an ironic twist, digital news distribution has in many cases helped weekly newspapers by creating a daily vehicle for us to post breaking news. Rather than having to wait several days to break a hot story, weekly newspapers can now do that just as quickly as any daily newspaper. That has leveled that playing field for many weekly publications and made them even more competitive.
The real question is: Will the smaller, regional daily newspapers survive in print? The big major metro newspapers have a unique niche and while their business model may shift, most will survive these changes.
But the smaller dailies don’t have the resources of a major metro newspaper and many are struggling financially because of large corporate debt pressures. They can buy some time by cutting the frequency of their print editions, but in the long run, will that along with a move toward digital generate enough income for the smaller dailies to last?
Sadly, the industry faces some real problems in the coming years. But many of the wounds we talk about today with daily newspapers are self-inflicted.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.