Lessons from a newspaper’s death

Posted in Newspapers - 15 January 2009 - 3 comments

I’ve watched a newspaper die from the inside.

The first paper I worked for, The Evansville Press, published its last edition on Dec. 31, 1998. I was there when the very last paper dropped off the press, in fact.

Unlike newspapers these days, we knew the day and the hour of our demise, had known it for years. It was an afternoon paper in a world that just has no use for afternoon papers anymore.

I loved working for that paper. I loved writing for an afternoon daily, the challenge of coming up with angles that were different from the morning paper. The competition.

And we were competitive. We had a handful of dedicated editors and reporters. And even as the numbers dwindled and the days wound down, everyone worked just as hard, maybe harder.

Here’s what I learned from that experience. If you’re selling something nobody wants, it doesn’t necessarily matter how well you’re making it. I could scoop the other guys three times a week, and it never sold any more papers.

It was important for me to see that as a reporter. Not because I needed a dose of fatalism or a lesson in “nothing you do matters.” It was important because I needed to see the business as bigger than what went on in my small department. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to be an editor, reporter and columnist. Combine that with my previous roles as delivery boy and clerk, and I’ve seen plenty of the business from the newsroom.

But as any good reporter will tell you, the newsroom is just about the worst place from which to report a story.

In the newsroom, we make a lot of great points. From the newsroom, we see that people want news more than ever before. From the newsroom, we know that newspapers are in a better position to give it to them in its various forms than anyone else.

From the newsroom, it looks as if we’re in this vast desert with truckloads of water, but not a soul in our industry can figure out how to sell it to people.

And there’s something to be said for that view. Newspapers for so long didn’t have to work for readers, didn’t have to innovate, didn’t have to advertise or sell themselves. Then came a wave of consolidation, which saw many of the nation’s papers gathered under the umbrellas of large national corporations who were interested in reaping the profits for stockholders but less interested in pouring money back into the news operations — or operations for the future.

So here we are. Newspapers are down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and the clock is ticking. But the situation isn’t exactly like it was for that afternoon daily I saw run out the clock.

If you add the print readers and web readers together, more people are reading my paper, The Courier-Journal, than at any time in its history. It’s not that people don’t want what we’re selling. It’s that they don’t want to pay for it.

Maybe newspapers need to find a way to demonstrate to people what they’re worth before they gut themselves to the point where they aren’t worth much of anything.

I don’t have the answer. But I do know this: newspapers won’t be saved without bold action. The duck-and-cover mentality that seems to be prevalent now, the constant cutting and constriction, will do little more than leave readers with an emaciated corpse to remember when newspapers die.

There is a point at which all this cutting compromises the future of these papers.

Instead, someone is going to have to act boldly to attack the problems rather than run for cover. I’d like to see someone, somewhere, plot a definite direction and, right or wrong, commit to it and see what happens.

Gannett, the company that employs me, this week announced that each employee in its newspaper division will be asked to take a one-week unpaid furlough. (An acknowledgment, by the way, that further cuts would do real damage to their newspapers).

As long as we’re doing this, here’s what I’d like to see from some newspaper owner.

Instead of muddling through while everybody fits in furloughs, I’d rather them shut everything down for a week — all at the same time. Stop the presses. Shut down the web sites. Park the delivery trucks. Let the racks stay empty.

A week without newspapers. It would be a huge story. But not for us to report.

It would save more money than a week of furloughs. (Yes, it would cut revenues, too, but if revenues are hurting the way people are saying, what’s the harm?)

More importantly, it would serve a much more symbolic and significant purpose. It would let cities all over this nation experience life without a newspaper for one week. And not just without a newspaper, but without the news, the features, the sports, that the paper generates.

Maybe people might look at things differently after that. And maybe they wouldn’t — a distinct possibility — but would things be any worse?

Maybe they could roll the papers back out strategically, half online only, charging for the news, half print only, and study the markets.

Maybe this is utter nonsense.

But newspapers, soon, are going to realize that the status quo will lead to their demise. As it is, papers are not fully committing to online operations, and at the same time are letting their print editions atrophy. It is a no-man’s land. Too often, the strategy now is a throwing of you-know-what against the wall to see what sticks.

I don’t blame them entirely. If there were an easy answer, the situation wouldn’t be this grave. It gets down to far more than what we do in the newsroom, and spreads more toward the changing nature of advertising, and a fundamental questioning — on the fly and under duress — of how newspapers make their money, period.

Oh, and having to address these questions — which have been staring newspapers in the face, anyway — amid the worst economic climate in a half-century doesn’t make things easier. But if anything, this economy merely has pushed fast-forward on a scene that had been developing slowly on its own.

As someone more prominent than I am said of another question during the recent presidential campaign — it’s above my pay grade.

I will say, this is one case where having a press-row seat isn’t necessarily fun. Those of us who work for papers are in a precarious spot, of course. But most of us take some solace in this — even if newspapers die, the news will not. This business will reconstitute itself and return in some fashion.

Still, as long as the clock is ticking, I’d hope that a few papers somewhere might decide that they’re not going to go down quietly or simply shrink their way to a certain fate. At least, I’d like to see a few ride out to meet it and see what happens.

3 Responses to Lessons from a newspaper’s death

  1. BILL DONNELLY says:

    Eric,

    I guess I am one of the few people who really enjoyed morning and afternoon newspapers. I loved to compare stories. I still love the newspaper. For me, it’s easier to read, easier to browse, and even quicker than the web.

    I often wonder if the powers that be, listen to the bean counters too much.
    I mean everyone fondly refers to the afternoon paper that used to be here. People fondly remember the paper the way it once was.. Maybe, just maybe, if things were like they were, people would get excited about newspapers and there would be an interest all over again.
    But then, I’m 59 and I know the young peeps rely soley on the web for the quick updates, the quick news bytes with little or no depth… never realizing just how good the print editions could be. How good they once were.
    Sad really.

  2. A B Summers says:

    Eric,

    This is a glorious, liberating time. The “paper” is dead, it just does not know it yet- kinda like the spectres in “Ghost Whisperer”. I cancelled my subscription to the socialist CJ months ago. I tried the on-line version and ditched that, as well. I simply had my fill of liberal slant creeping out from Hawpe’s editorial page and I did not have a bird that needed to crap on the newsprint. The “paper” of the future will be on-line, nimble and opinionated – that is not a contradiction with the opinionated CJ, but rather a recognition that there will be an information free market where I can subscribe to the “paper” of my choosing – a world where there will once again be competition without the crushing capital and cash required to publish and deliver material bird cage linings. Reporters and editors should embrace this brave new world aggressively and not be afraid to charge for a quality product.

  3. Rob Mattheu says:

    I always wonder about the chicken and egg of this situation. Companies like Gannett will blame new media. Personally, I blame their continual cost cutting and move to nationalize properties that were local. In the past 25 years, the paper has cut reporters, cut its size, cut columnists, stopped publishing local reviews of movies, eliminated columns we all liked, and in the move that really was the last straw to me, changed the Scene from an enjoyable weekly read for everyone into a fashion magazine aimed at women.

    Yes the content on the Web is free, but even that is hardly worth it. The website plays up nonsense and makes it almost impossible to find important news.

    I continue to subscribe to the CJ because I think it is important to keep local print media alive. But local papers have died not because of the rise of other media, but because the product that they were selling was destroyed by corporate bosses who had no clue about why people actually enjoyed their product.

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