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Monday, March 16, 2009

Why is the Newspaper Industry really in Trouble?

The New York Times has had to sell part of its recently constructed headquarters, the Boston Globe is said to be worth barely 20 million dollars, the Rocky Mountain News has closed, the San Francisco Chronicle may be next. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, have all filed for bankruptcy protection.

It's not exactly news that the newspaper industry is standing on the edge of a cliff. The question is why. In a bitter and rambling Washington Post diatribe, Kathleen Parker, who had apparently read her memo from the White House, blames Rush Limbaugh and Dittoheads for being too ignorant to know how badly they need newspapers.

In the five stages of mourning, this would seem to be the Anger stage. Or maybe it's just the usual propaganda stage, because the newspaper industry has steadily and surely dug its own grave. Parker bemoans what will happen when the local community newspaper is no longer around and no one is reporting on PTA meetings, but she knows quite well that the local community newspaper has much better prospects for survival than the national chains that syndicate her bitter ramblings.

Local community newspapers are far more likely to know their readership and to have something unique to offer them, local content that no one else is producing, and local advertising that lets neighborhood businesses connect directly with their customers. And they will survive, even when the New York Times is a distant memory. What they have, the Times and the big newspaper chains lack.

With the advent of radio, newspapers could no longer be the first source of breaking news for most people. With the advent of television, newspapers could no longer hold a monopoly of telling a story backed by images. With the advent of the internet, newspapers no longer had a monopoly on anything. The internet can duplicate every virtue of the newspaper medium, which meant that the only way for newspapers to survive was based on content.

Instead the big papers depreciated their content. They became even more shriller and partisan and broke fewer actual stories. Instead they let their Generation X and Millennials have free range. News stories became indistinguishable from editorials. Fact checking went out the window, creating the perfect environment for both fabulists such as the Times' Blair and for biased reports to create stories that fit their own agenda.

Left wing bias alone didn't kill the newspaper industry, but it certainly didn't help. Parker claims that only a few newspapers are more liberal than their readers, and there are only a few bad actors among reporters. That is a little like an investment banker claiming that Wall Street only had a few bad apples. The big newspaper chains not only became more biased, but also became more blatant about it than ever. Standards went out the window. And despite declining revenues and circulation, the newspaper chains only increased the depth of their bias and the range of their contempt for their readers.

When facing competition, even stupid businesses will usually make an effort to reach out to potential customers. Newspapers instead arrogantly turned away customers left and right. Eventually the people complaining about the big chains' biases on politics, on Israel, on the environment and on numerous other topics-- stopped complaining. They also stopped reading.

By canceling my newspaper subscription, I didn't singlehandedly bring any major papers to their knees. Nor did the many others who did so as organized protest, or out of individual dissatisfaction. We just made the situation worse. But it was the industry itself that had created the problem. Newspaper readers and subscribers are customers. When your customers are leaving, your company and your industry has a problem.

The same arrogance demonstrated by Kathleen Parker is at the heart of the problem. Newspaper chains  decided that they were powerful enough to dictate their political agenda to their readers, to endlessly raise prices and create media monopolies. They did it all dressed up with the same rhetoric about public service and government watchdogs. And now when their customers have left, they're railing at them for being ignorant rubes who don't know enough to buy their newspapers.

But of course that doesn't help. If you're in the business of selling shaved ice, and no one is buying, you can either rail at bypassers for being ignorant rubes who don't know the value of shaved ice, or you can talk to them and find out why they aren't buying your shaved ice, and what you can change in order to sell it to them.

Instead newspapers insist that they and their remaining readers who pay 4 dollars on Sunday for a copy of the Times packed with full page ads, fluff stories on culture, essays on life by people who spend most of their time on Martha's Vineyard and carefully elaborated stories about different parts of the world that don't actually report anything new-- are smart. And Rush Limbaugh and his listeners who pay nothing to listen to ad sponsored broadcasts that report news that the same papers won't print, are stupid rubes.

Common sense alone would indicate otherwise. Parker titled her article, "Frayed Thread in a Free Society", but it is talk radio populism that far better represents a free society, than the big newspaper chains. Their collapse will also pave the way for greater populism locally. The new face of the newspaper industry will look less like the New York Times, it will syndicate Kathleen Parker's columns, but it will in fact report on the PTA and on school board and transportation meetings. It will be more relevant, more local, less biased and a lot less full of itself.

If the newspaper industry really wanted to survive, it would unload its baggage of arrogance, and ask how it can market itself to the same audience that makes Limbaugh's radio work so profitable. Instead the big chains have made it clear that they would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. But castigating their departing customers as ignorant will not pay the bills, and barring a bailout from King Hussein, they're bound for the big wastebasket.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

We have the same problem with MSM in Quebec. This province is so liberal that no newspaper is worth reading. They praise Obama, Kyoto and marches against wars and spit on Israel.

Whenever I get a phone call from a telemarketing company who wants to sell me a subscription to one of Quebec's newspapers, I answer them that I would gladly subscribe the day that they will kick out all those idiot leftist journalists and give me real information. They are usually speachless and the calls end up right there... lol

(French Canadian)

Keli Ata said...

Excellent excellent excellent!

You're right that local community newspapers are doing better than the national ones or even regional ones. One, it's a niche market with a very specific readership. If something's not in our distribution area we simply don't cover it.

Advertising is generally cheaper. Small businesses such as pizzerias,mom and pop restaurants could never afford a full page ad in USA Today or even The Buffalo News.

Put a local community newspaper that comes out once a week? That's not too expensive.

At smaller papers there is more accountability to the readers don't just call or email to complain if something is wrong--they come in person or call. We run into them on the street, in the supermarket, at the bus stop.

The national and regional newspapers are arrogant. Their political biases have indeed cost them advertisements and readers.

And the Internet has changed everything. When flight 3407 crashed last month people in the immediate area were posting videos they took with cell phones and digital cameras on to You Tube even as the television news crews were held back several miles.

Michele said...

Did you mean "indistinguishable" where you write "News stories became distinguishable from editorials."?

susan h said...

What is more disturbing than losing newspapers is losing responsible journalism. That is very troubling. During the 2008 US campaign and election, pretty much ALL U.S. news sources were biased in favor of Obama, so much so they lied, covered up, invented things about other candidates and had no problem distorting information to make Obama look good. There is yet no remorse by these people. I used to watch CNN and MSNBC until they became so biased in their approach and now I will not even turn them on. When individuals lose respect and belief in the integrity of the stories being put out there, why bother to read the news, whether in print or coming through television. You had more honest reporting coming from the National Enquirer last year than the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times, both of which were so invested in Obama becoming president they were willing to knowingly and wilfully print lies and misconceptions. I have been saying for the last few months, Is there an honest politician left in Congress? Well, is there an honest journalist left in America? One I know, D. Greenfield - not sure of any others.

Sultan Knish said...

indeed, so local community newspapers will live on, it's the big chains that require millions of readers for profitability and to justify their huge spending that are in trouble

Sultan Knish said...

yes thank you michelle

Sultan Knish said...

yes susan, with this election the press crossed irretrievably into not simply biased territory, but going from being the press corps, to being the pr corps for one candidate

Keli Ata said...

You're right. It is the PR corps and not the press corps. Making matters worse, virtually all of the regional dailies rely on wire services so there's rarely any independent reporting. It's the same old boilerplate.

But even the boilerplate coverage has gotten dumbed down with the heavy use of "charticles." Basically, 100 words or less charts with a photo or some other kind of graphic. Look at USA Today and you'll see what I mean. Not only do most charticles carry little substance, due to the brevity of them the writing must be punchy, which opens the door to bias.

Charticle=article plus chart.

The other day I saw someone on PBS lamenting the loss of print news and expressing concern over what she calls "citizen journalists" over professional journalists.

From what I've seen of J school interns I don't have a whole lot of confidence in professional journalists of the future.

In 11 years I've only used a charticle twice that I can recall--and they were used as sidebars with much longer articles. Outlets like USA Today tend to let charticles replace investigative journalism and narratives.

Not only are people short-changed on the news coverage and exposed to horrible biases they're deprived of the creative process, of reading a well-written piece with a great opening and closing.

USA Today is notorious for using charticles. Sadly, I read that most newspaper readers only want to read stories that are under 600 words. Most of what I write is 1000+ words.

Sultan Knish said...

the newsmagazines pushed charticles and pages full of cartoons substituting for news coverage

then they increasingly went for lifestyle content over news coverage, and they copied that too

a lot of papers think lifestyle is the future, and news coverage is best left to radio and the internet, and that's killing them too

few people will pay just for fluff in the long run, especially since the internet can do fluff too

Keli Ata said...

Right. People will only pay for what they value and the demise of daily print newspapers says a lot about how readers feel about the content.

I cancelled my subscription to the Buffalo News about six years ago.

People like Parker would rather indirectly point the blame on rubes (though never using that word) than face the facts of the matter. That's also Obama's problem with the working class--he sees us as rubes, country bumpkins, too unsophisticated for his likes.

No wonder the mainstream media adores him.

Sultan Knish said...

elitism without substance on their part

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