What do you do when your industry is slowly collapsing? Do you shrug and find a new profession or tough it out and hope for better times? And if you stay the course, how can you and your peers keep the industry alive?
In the last two decades, editorial employment at daily newspapers in the United States has declined by more than 50 percent. Job loss on such a scale usually means that the industry itself is doomed, fated to go the way of passenger railways, corner grocery stores or livery stables.
Twenty-five years ago, print dailies were fat, profitable and seemed to have a great future. That funny little internet thing barely existed, big national advertisers such department stores and auto dealers spent millions on ads and many big cities still had two or three competing dailies. Chains acquired family-owned newspapers, and burdened them with debt. And why not, given that monopoly dailies in medium-sized markets brought in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization of about 35-40 percent?
But then came the “perfect storm” of the mature internet, social media and back-to-back recessions. Young people had no interest in print, department stores slowly disappeared and social media allowed advertisers to precisely target consumers. Newspaper circulation plummeted as debt-laden chains shrank, declared bankruptcy, and shed workers.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter understood such destabilizing change as inherent to the capitalist system and essential to the system’s vitality and power. In his 1942 work “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,” Schumpeter described creative destruction, the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
Newspaper reporters and editors see themselves as the constitutionally protected guardians of American democracy, providing objective, factual and carefully curated news to an informed citizenry. Such news comes at considerable cost, one that has historically been borne by print advertisers and subscribers. But now that model doesn’t work, and Wall Street vulture capitalists are picking over the bones of once-proud newspapers like The Denver Post.
Can the Post be rescued through the well-meaning intervention of a group of Colorado Springs investors (led by Colorado Springs Business Journal owner John Weiss)? I don’t know, but journalists need to be part of the change.
Sitting in the audience at a featured panel discussion about media ownership during the annual convention of the Colorado Press Association, I listened as some of the five panelists complained about the state of their world.
The message: It’s all the fault of private ownership. Newspapers should be controlled by community nonprofits or by smiling philanthropists with deep community links. All of the panelists paid homage to their fellow journalists, who righteously serve their communities and advance the common good.
But much of the public seems convinced that journalists are arrogant liberal sourpusses who believe that all politicians are on the take, all businesspeople are crooks and most citizens are foolish dupes of the powerful. If that’s not true, we need smarter public relations and better public engagement.
Take the just-announced Pulitzer Prizes, the most prestigious awards in journalism. They could have the public impact of the Oscars, the Emmys or the Grammys, but instead they’re obscure, clubby and elitist.
What if the Oscars, instead of announcing the nominees for every category weeks before the big event, and then staging a spectacular televised event, simply released a list of winners and finalists on a random Monday morning in April? Talk about burying the lead, about making your craft and your business seem unimportant and irrelevant!
The lofty grandees who control the Pulitzers need to catch up with the 21st century. They need to abandon their scrupulous disdain for the world of commerce and promotion, and hire a few agents. Let them negotiate corporate sponsorships, a dazzling event venue and TV contracts. Announce the finalists early, fly them out to the big city, sign up hosts and presenters (Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lawrence, George Clooney, Stephen Colbert) and put on a show! America could see journalists in a very different light: as smart, cool, hardworking people making a better America.