A few weeks ago, David Carr, a reporter for the New York Times had “the conversation” with a fellow reporter.
As Carr reported it: “We’re both 49 — are we going to make it?” Would they finish their careers at the Times, or would their jobs simply disappear? Would even the proud Times fall victim to the transformative power of the Internet?
Consider how a newspaper is created.
Every story, every ad, every illustration exists only in electronic form. Graphic designers electronically compose the newspaper which, when completed, is electronically transmitted to the printer—or, rather, to the computer that controls and schedules the press run.
The electronic paper is transferred to newsprint. The resulting product is bundled, trucked to distribution points and ultimately delivered to the consumer.
Meanwhile, the electronic newspaper doesn’t just go away — simple software tools convert it into a Web site, easily accessed by anyone with a computer, i.e., almost all of the print edition’s readers.
So why bother with print at all? Why not simply send out your product electronically and cut out the printer, the paper mills, the distributors and the delivery people? It seems to make economic sense, doesn’t it? Maybe newspapers, as we know them, will simply cease to exist within a few years.
Longtime newspaperman Kenyon Jordan, editor/publisher of the West Side Pioneer, reminisces about his stint as a reporter for the Gazette in the early 1980s.
“In those days there were two dailies — the Gazette and the Sun. The Gazette had twice as many reporters as they do today, and the competition was fierce. Every morning, the editors put up a big board with our stories on one side and the Sun’s on the other — and if the Sun had a headline “No Dinosaurs Spotted Downtown,” the editors would be after us — why didn’t you get the dinosaur story?”
In common with virtually every daily newspaper in the country, the Gazette has faltered in recent years. In the last 15 years the Pikes Peak region has grown by more than 140,000 inhabitants, but the Gazette’s circulation hasn’t budged, varying between 95,000 and 105,000. And that’s in a monopoly market — the Sun folded and was absorbed by the Gazette in 1987.
According to Noel Black of the Web-based daily High Plains Messenger, newspapers such as the Gazette are the victims of a perfect business storm, an example of capitalism’s “creative destruction.”
“You’ve got all these little pubs chewing away at their base — the neighborhood weeklies, the alternative newsweeklies, the specialized ad throwaways — and now the Internet,” he said. “And people under 35 don’t read dailies anyway. And there’s Craig’s List, with free classified ads, and there goes a major revenue source. At some point they won’t be able to continue. They’re still good businesses, they’re still profitable, but they’re finished. Right now, a lot of readers prefer a print newspaper, but that won’t last forever.”
Black believes that by 2015 most dailies will migrate to the Web. “The New York Times will print its Sunday edition — everything else will be on its Web site,” he said.
But how can Web-based publications generate enough ad revenue to sustain high-quality reporting and editing? Won’t newspapers simply devolve into blogs — noisy, entertaining, unreliable?
“Look, nobody wants to pay for content — but eventually they’ll have to,” Black said. “Everyone hated Times Select [the subscription-based New York Times enhanced Web site] but the Times is in business to make money. And advertisers are catching on.”
Black may be right. Last week, the Newspaper Association of America reported that newspaper print ad spending increased only 0.3 percent during the first three months of 2006, compared to a year ago.
Online advertising, by contrast, grew by 35 percent. But print revenue dwarfs its online counterpart — $10.6 billion vs. $613 million.
Newspaper publishers prefer to put an optimistic spin on these figures.
Jason Klein, CEO of the National Newspaper Network, a partnership of advertisers and newspapers, was quoted in the Times as saying: “I think this industry is in for exceptional long-term growth from online revenue.”
But will that growth compensate for stagnant, or even declining, revenue from print?
Last month, the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported that, in the six-month period ending in March, daily circulation of American newspapers dropped by 2.5 percent compared to the same period a year ago.
If such declines continue, advertisers may move even more quickly to other media, triggering an industrywide, self-reinforcing death spiral.
Online advertising has certain advantages. Advertisers can target their customers, and pay only for page views or for click-throughs. Within hours, they can judge the effectiveness of their ads, and of the online medium.
They can alter content, control timing and frequency, and expand/contract their Web presence at will. They can interact in real time with their market — a powerful advantage over every other ad medium.
For advertisers on Google, with its hundreds of millions of users, this model works. It’s not yet clear how well it can scale down to the local level.
Black’s online newspaper, highplainsmessenger.com, may be the wave of the future. With start-up funding “in six figures” provided by a group of local businessmen led by restaurateur Joseph Coleman, the “mess” is fully staffed with reporters, editors and an army of eager freelancers.
The site started with a splash – after seeing El Paso County Commissioner Doug Bruce’s profile on an Internet dating site, reporter Julie Imada posted her own profile, and went on a date with him.
The resulting story, although largely sympathetic to Bruce, was widely criticized by traditional media types. Gazette news editor Jeff Thomas dismissed it (in his blog) as tabloid sensationalism —not journalism.
Says Black: “We’re not trying to be a giant killer — just filling a niche. We have no idea whether we’re going to make it or not. But we think it’s just a matter of time, and we hope our timing is right.”
Kenyon Jordan, who began his newspaper career as a copy boy with the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1967, thinks that dailies have only themselves to blame for their ills.
“Dailies, as a rule, have lost touch with their audience,” he said. “For example, the Independent takes a left-wing stance and that’s what their audience wants — you have to be in touch with the people you serve.”
Jordan founded the West Side Pioneer two years ago. A free publication that is focused on the city’s west side, its circulation has increased by 40 percent (from 3,000 to 4,200) since its inception. Jordan attributes his success to lessons he learned from previous positions at community papers.
“One paper I worked for was taken over by an out-of-state corporation, and after a while no one who worked there even lived in the community,” he said. “We just couldn’t function the way we should have. The Pioneer is a family paper — we all live on the west side. If a subscriber calls us with a problem I may be the one talking to her. And we don’t sell out — I’d never deal out stories for ads. I was convinced a true community paper could work — and we’re doing OK so far.”
Jordan pauses. “Of course, we’d be a lot better if the cost of paper didn’t keep going up — four price increases so far.”
Asked whether print newspapers are dying, Jordan is dismissive.
“Well, I like print, and I think our readers and advertisers do as well,” he said. “I don’t think print’s going away, because the kind of people that like newspapers like print. And you know, back in 1967, when I started with the Herald-Examiner, there was this old newspaperman who told me ‘Don’t go into this business, boy — newspapers are dying.’ And here I am.”
The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, which once claimed the largest afternoon newspaper circulation in the country, went out of business on November 2, 1989.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-5905.