Thursday, March 12, 2009

About that newspaper ‘doomsday' list

Don’t lose too much sleep over the list of 10 supposedly doomed newspapers that made the rounds in the last couple of days.

Although some of the papers one day may succumb to anemic readership and revenues, there is not enough information or analysis underlying the scary list to support the proposition that the publications are more or less doomed than any of 10, 20 or 30 other papers that might have been named, instead.

For the record, the papers on the list are the Philadelphia Daily News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, Detroit News, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The hit list, which was produced by Douglas A. McIntyre at 24/7 Wall St., was rapidly and uncritically republished everywhere from Time Magazine to the Drudge Report. Although Doug is a friend whose ordinarily thoughtful work I have cited on occasion, there is no hard data or deep analysis to support his findings.

Doug gives no evidence why the Plain Dealer is any more endangered than any of the other newspapers published by its parent, Advance Publications. Or why the Miami and Fort Worth papers are more at risk than some of the other McClatchy titles.

Even though weak economies are hardest on the No. 2 papers in two-newspaper towns, Doug predicts the demise of the print edition of the Boston Globe while saying nothing of the apparently fragile financial status of the far smaller Boston Herald.

Two more No. 2 papers, the Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News, indeed are facing steep challenges, as discussed respectively here and here.

Doug joins the many commentators who have been quick to predict the demise of the San Francisco Chronicle, but, as explained here, it is unlikely the Chron will be shut down. Rather, it almost certainly will be folded in due course into the cluster of MediaNews Group papers that encircle it in northern California.

Given that MediaNews, the parent of the Detroit News, is locked into a complex series of financial relationships with Gannett, the senior partner in the Motown joint-operating agreement, it seems unlikely the parties can let the News fail.

While the Strib and N.Y. News face fierce cross-town competition in their respective markets, each has the potential to partner with a rival paper to drastically reduce operating expenses and, thus, enhance profitability. The potential partner in the Twin Cities is the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The N.Y. News could team with Newsday, the New York Post or even the Newark Star-Ledger.

Doug’s doomsday list omits the names of some papers that arguably could be more endangered than the ones he mentioned. One of them is the Seattle Times, whose publisher says he is "holding on by our fingertips" even as the competing Post-Intelligencer seems poised to go out of business.

21 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the NY Daily News and NY Post combine, it would be as if one went out of business because each paper has highly salaried columnists, and I would imagine that they would not all be able to be kept. So yes, the major cuts would take place in operations, but many of the writers would be gone.

Also, those two papers have very different political outlets. The News is known to be liberal while the Post is conservative. Then what would they do?

9:14 PM  
Blogger John said...

I've never commented here before but I'm an avid reader - this is a great site; the best newspaper-related blog there is.

The US newspaper market has always bemused me in it size and structure. There is no other news market in the world with such a strong reliance on locally driven content. This creates a byzantine cost structure that ultimately harms the industry. That mid-sized cities cannot support more than one paper is barely a surprise. The question should be whether it can support a paper at all.

A shakeout that results in a ~4-6 national papers (perhaps with the odd local insert) will bequeath a stronger industry where the parent company can capture more synergies across the group. Not only that but the funds will remain in place for high quality investiagtive reporting that is essential for a well functioning democracy.

3:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the Detroit News.
I spent 15 years working for The Detroit News before I left five years ago. I can tell you that the Detroit Free Press is by no means an "alpha" paper. It was given its current print circulation lead over the News in the joint operating agency agreement that gave the Free Press morning home delivery and the News afternoon home delivery. And it's telling that the Free Press picked up NONE of the readers the News lost when it went to afternoon home delivery at the start of the JOA in 1989. (Fortunately, Gannett returned the News to morning home delivery once it took near total control of the JOA.)
The News has several strengths that other papers in JOAs do not have:
-- Its Web site gets as many--and often more--hits at the Free Press Web site. And, unlike the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, its Web site is independent of the Free Press site.
-- Its print circulation is about 61 percent that of the Free Press' circulation, putting it in a far stronger position relative to the larger paper than the Tuscon Citizen relative to the Tucson Star.
-- Gannett, which owned the News from 1986 to 2005, knows from painful experience that once you take away a paper from people--which happened when the News became an afternoon paper in 1989 and when the unions launched a boycott of both papers--they do not go to another publication. That's why Gannett decided to launch this home-delivery experiment in Detroit. I hope it works.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John,

Please rethink your position. National newspapers might do investigation in DC, but the billions of tax dollars spent in every county, city, suburb and town would go almost entirely unchecked. Moreover, people would have no insight into how their school systems worked (or didn't) or whether the sewer district chief signed contracts with his brother-in-law. Local, local, local is what is needed for a health democracy. There must be some model to support it. Perhaps now that the economy has crashed, people will care less about what sweater Paris Hilton's dog is wearing and more about whether they have elected a crook.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. I wondered where this list came from, and attempted to track it back to its source to see the data justifying its composition. Like you, I find no economic justification for some of the names that are on this list, or for excluding some I would have expected to find there. No dead-tree newspapers are particularly well positioned in this economic environment, and I could cite many debt-laden entities that I believe are now teetering.

11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For anonymous 11:36. Before wrapping yourself in the myth of how newspapers are necessary to a healthy democracy, take a closer look at that publication on your doorstep. When was the last time they covered a meeting of the local sewer authority, or for that matter wrote about the mugging you saw on the street the other day. Local newspapers have long given up any interest in anything but their advertisers' well-being and pelf.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Dan Kennedy said...

Uncritically published everywhere? Alan, I give you this and this.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, Alan...

You've just done what most every journalist has done since the beginning of time:

You took one slice of a story or report, pimped it out, exaggerated it, and made it into something that it's not in order to make a point.

In this instance, you've molested Mr. McIntyre's piece very badly.

The fact is, the headline on his report clearly states, "The Ten Major Newspapers That Will Fold Or Go Digital Next".

In his report, McIntyre says, "24/7 Wall St. has created its list of the ten major daily papers that are most likely to fold or shut their print operations and only publish online."

You slapped a headline on your blog entry that says, "About that newspaper ‘doomsday' list".

"Doomsday" you say? How does "going digital" equate to "doomsday"?

Is it "doomsday" when a company capitulates and grasps the concept that the product they make -- in this instance, newspapers printing newspapers —- doesn't work anymore and they make the change to a business model that actually holds some promise?

Mark Phillips

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "N.Y. News" -- um, how about the Daily News, or the NYDN. I don't really see why it the Post and it would partner after being locked in a brutal newspaper war for years. If Murdoch smells the opportunity to drive the NYDN out of business he'll be more than happy to continue absorbing losses. I don't really see why partnering with Newsday or the Star-Ledger would "drastically" reduce operating expenses. Maybe they could combine some advertising sales staff, I guess. But those papers don't have that much of a presence in NYC.

Really, the only question regarding the paper's continued survival is for how long Zuckerman is willing to continue subsidizing it. How much is all that influence worth, esp. now that his other property, US News & World Report, is a shell of its former self? He's ordered color presses, which are supposed to come on late this year, so that's one sign...

2:13 PM  
Blogger HNIC1971 said...

Alan,
I work at the Austin American-Statesman and have been here for about 3 years. I believe in the power of media and I am (I think) one of the few people who think papers can adapt if new thinking is allowed to grow. What I'm waiting for is the book or documentary that traces how these papers got into trouble in the first place. Since many of these papers have been losing money for years, I don't understand why something wasn't done after the first year of losses for many of these papers. I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

3:31 PM  
Blogger DiStefano said...

"Not enough information and analysis..."

Quoted "uncritically..."

Sounds like you're just jealous he's usurping your usual role there, Alan!

Cheerfully, Joe DiStefano, Philadelphia

4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"[The list] was rapidly and uncritically republished everywhere from Time Magazine to the Drudge Report."

Shameful, but not surprising that. Sad to say, but just about anyone who slaps together an arbitrary number of items or ideas into a list is sure to have it widely published, regardless of merit.

As a copy editor, I find myself asking a reporter or assigning editor at least once a day, "Do we believe this?" about some dubious statement, projection, claim, etc.
Many times, they can be validated, which is fine. And even the dumb ones can't always be nipped in the bud.

But for God sakes, more journalists should at least do some kind of due diligence, as you did, with glib lists like these.

And one more thing (sorry for the length): To Mark Phillips at 12:22 PM -- Why NOT equate "going digital" to "doomsday"?
A Web site is not a newspaper, and more important, no newspaper Web sites are making much money, either.
DD

4:17 PM  
Anonymous copy editor emeritus said...

this part of the bio is funny ...

one of the 12 largest cable-TV companies

does no. 13 even exist?

11:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark Phillips: Going digital only is doomsday. No newspaper will survive as a digital only operation. Alan has laid out the financial realities very well in his sections on the "voodoo economics" of digital. Digital is 10 to 15 percent of revenue at most papers. But even that is primarily upsell from print advertisers. When print goes away, the customers go away. The "pure buy" of newspaper websites is a pittance. As NYT's David Carr said, enough to cover the coffee budget of most newsrooms." So for newspapers, digital only means death. Unless you mean that something named the Seattle Post-Intelligencer linking to every story off the Seattle Times and running a small band of green reporters around town on a handful of stories at 30k per year is "a business model that actually holds some promise."

12:35 AM  
Blogger tgd said...

DiStefano:
"Since many of these papers have been losing money for years, I don't understand why something wasn't done after the first year of losses for many of these papers."

Actually, most of them haven't been losing money for years. Most have been immensely profitable up until the last two years, when revenues declined 20% or more back to back, effectively cutting revenues in half.

Circulation was declining. Revenue was growing only by raising rates, which forced smaller advertisers out, and increased our reliance on a few categories (car dealers, corporate recruiters, department stores). When they hit the skids, so did newspapers.

The books, by the way, exist. They are not filled with anecdotes about our industry - but they describe our problems quite precisely (and quite presciently).

Start with Innovator's Dilemma by Clay Christensen, and throw in Information Rules by Hal Varian.

5:04 AM  
Blogger tgd said...

DD -

"A web site is not a newspaper."

True. But that sounds dangerously close to the trope "web sites don't do journalism."

Politico started as a web site. It now has a weekly print edition. Worthy, or electron-based swill?

The economic reality is that newspapers can't exist any more as they have for 40 years. We need to focus the conversation on what must come next - not on equating digital to doomsday.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

To Copy Editor Emeritus, who has questioned my bio:

It's true that there are only a handful of cable TV companies today. When I was in the business between 1988 and 1995, however, there were dozens and dozens.

In fact, our company rolled up a number of individual systems to create the regional clusters in Arizona, California, Tennessee and other states that today are operated by such large companies as Comcast and Cox.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan,
Thanks for your criticism of the media for running with the story without any analysis of its merit. This story came out right after I returned from a trip to NYC. When I quickly picked up a Daily News at the airport on my way back home, I was surprised to see how thick the paper was. They are selling plenty of ads. Therefore, I was shocked to see the Daily News on the list of endangered newspapers. I agree that this list was totally arbitrary and didn't have much basis in reality.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Alan's view here, and partially agree with it.

However, I live in Philadelphia, and have read the Daily News and Inquirer since I was kid delivering the newspapers. I can tell you, that today, the Daily News is in trouble of being closed.

Both papers, like many of the now defunct Knight-Ridder's former print dailies, never recovered from the Ridder side of the organization's assault on its holdings. From 1990 onwards, I saw the signs of this first-hand, and am not surprised whatsoever that newspapers across the country are either closing, or on the verge of closing for good.

There is quiet talk and real fears that 2009 may be the last year of the Philadelphia Daily News in its print form as a newspaper.

As a former Knight-Ridder reporter I saw the writing on the wall as early as 1989, when the country's newspaper management were immersed with attempting to mix the new INTERNET technologies with ink-and-paper news delivery methods.

However, much of the technological conversion, I am sad to say, was stunted by generational differences within news organizations. Coupled with management politics, and the constant pressures of meeting "stock-holders" expectations, the merging of technology with print media took too long, and became an effort in futility through the lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s.

Joint Operating Agreements (JOAs) were seen by most newsroom staffers as temporary, and were pushed on many competing major dailies, we were told, to save money and to bring about efficient delivery systems so print organizations would survive long into the future.

The JOA system was seen as the "savior" of many papers nationwide. However, younger generation journalists among Generation X (1961-75) who were working as young reporters in the late 1980s, and 1990s, thought the JOA system was only a band-aid to the overall problem of declining variable circulation numbers, and executives looking to cut costs while gaining more political control over news content.

Sadly, the decade of the 1990s were lost to older Baby Boomer news execs and managers holding onto their positions while organizations like Knight-Ridder continued their slash-and-burn policies into the 2000s ~ when, in the end ~ the coporation succeeded in destroying 35 newspapers across the country ~ among them some of the most heralded newspapers in American history.

There is a tendency today to continue to stick one's head in the sand about the death of newspapers, and the expected deaths of other dailies like the Daily News, and Seattle P-I, among others.

If you take a look at a newspaper like the recently closed Rocky Mountain News in Denver, this paper, after 149 years and 311 days could not survive to reach it's 150th anniversary year when E.W. Scripps walked away.

From the trending: things do not look good. I expect to hear of more newspaper shutdowns to come, and these will be well-known dailies.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So why is it that newspapers in the UK are thriving? London, at least supports five dailies (Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, Mail, Times-maybe I'm forgetting one). The classifieds sections of these papers were never anything like U.S. papers pre-Craigslist (interestingly enough, Craigslist is a poor competitor to Gumtree in the UK) so why and how is it that UK papers are thriving where US papers are failing?

2:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You sem to have overlooked the success of the free newspapers in Europe. Metro is widely read. Thius Swedish free newspaper is now published in many big cities of the continent and thrives in London - at least among readers. There are other newsppers following this example.

8:42 PM  

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