Friday, January 10, 2014

Nothing sudden about the death of newspapers

My journalist friends and I are doing a lot of hand-wringing these days over the death of the Kamloops Daily News, which has a history as a good, strong community newspaper.  The News is not the first nor the last newspaper to die in these difficult times, but that a paper should die that journalists themselves thought of as a good paper perhaps feels weightier to us.
    It’s all very sad, of course. A community is losing its long-time local voice. People are losing their jobs. Loyal readers are losing their beloved morning read. But on the other hand, nobody can possibly be surprised that the newspaper industry is finally in the death throes after more than 20 years of being terminally ill.
    However you might feel about capitalism, at its essence it’s about producing something that meets a demand and thus earns you a profit. When the profits start falling, that’s a rather clear signal that a company either has to do something to turn things around, or fold up the tent and go home. Doing nothing is not an option.
    Once upon a time a community newspaper made loads of money. But the signs were all there 20 years ago that the glory days were over. The fact that newspapers aren’t dead yet is an indicator of just how damn profitable they once were, that they’ve been able to hold on this long. And that so many readers clung on even as newspapers grew thinner and lost their community focus tells you just how much of a habit the daily newspaper once was, and that the industry managed to fritter that away too by ignoring all the alarm bells for an astounding two decades.
    Twenty years ago, the industry knew it had a problem with young readers, but thought that would resolve itself once they got older. It didn’t. It had a problem with working couples, who increasingly didn’t have time for a morning read and by nighttime, sought more up-to-date news from the local TV station. Nobody did anything about that, either.
     It had a problem with a growing generic look and feel that was developing among newspapers mandated to look like each other and share the same bland news in order to reduce newsroom costs, a change that really bothered readers who valued a real community paper. Today, with newsrooms skinnier than they’ve ever been and chain ownership a given, you can travel across the country without being able to distinguish one city newspaper from another.
    Long before I left journalism 10 years ago, the industry also had a big problem with advertising revenue, especially classifieds. The rise of on-line alternatives like craigslist, offering way more flexibility and coverage for a much lower price, indicated a sea change in how the game would be played from that point on.       Newspaper analysts duly noted the problem and the industry just kept on doing what it had always done.
    As readers started to drop away in earnest even while major newspapers clung to their stubbornly high advertising rates from the good old days, big advertisers (grocery ads used to be huge for newspapers) began looking for cheaper alternatives with more reach. Those lost revenues led to more cuts, which in turn resulted in even fewer readers and advertisers.
    The industry diligently documented each of these threats as they emerged, hiring costly consultants to identify the problems and come up with schemes to turn things around. But for whatever reason, nothing significant changed. Sure, there’d be a design remake here, a new weekly supplement there, an (unfulfilled) promise to focus on local news. But it was all a bit like showing up at a four-alarm fire with one bucket of water.
     Even when the industry finally tried new things – on-line classifieds, Web news – it always seemed to launch them at least 5 years behind the trend, and do clunky things like erecting pay walls even while dozens of other Web sites provided fairly similar news for free. The generic feel of the news grew ever more generic, despite constant reader feedback that generic was not what they wanted.
    For me, the newspaper industry’s response to changing times has been like someone on a beach who spots a tidal wave 25 years in the future and just stands there rooted to the same spot until the tsunami finally hits. As badly as I feel about the decline of the newspaper industry, I can’t have much sympathy for a business that has done so little to change course in the face of decades of obvious threats.
    As for my journalist friends, they are having a hard time accepting this, although the truth is that many of them haven’t changed their approach either as the numbers kept on falling. I was surprised during my years in management in the mid-1990s at how few of the reporters even read the paper they worked for, or any other. How can you expect people to love the newspaper you write for when even you can’t be bothered to read it?
    Journalism ought to be a passion, a burning curiosity for helping your readers understand their world. But too often, it’s just a job. It’s just what you do after you get a degree in journalism. (And have the journalism schools kept up with the changes?)
    There are some very fine writers out there who continue to write with insight and integrity, but there are also quite a few who have been standing paralyzed on the beach for the last quarter-century as well, watching that tsunami creep closer. They talk a lot about the problems in the industry, but don’t seem to understand that they’re part of it.
    Anyway. Today we mourn the passing of the Kamloops News. Soon enough, there will be more. The world changed and the industry didn’t. Nobody can say we didn't see it coming.


Unknown said...

Jody: Thank you for a very interesting post, which was forwarded to me by a Facebook friend in Western Canada.

I am in small-town Ontario. I was a print reporter for 14 years. Here's my story: I wrote for magazines and trade publications like Variety and Playback. Mostly freelance, low paid, no pension or benefits. Not a good trajectory, as I realized in my early 40s...I got out in 2008-2009.

It was not an easy transition -- what do old writers do? What are they good for? I didn't even write headlines. I figured my content skills would be valuable if I could supplement that with contemporary skills. So I learned HTML and WordPress and started learning design.

I did some contract work for a local arts council (government grant), a bit of teaching, web design. I set myself up as a communications and marketing company, built websites.

This was during the recession, and in truth, I was underemployed for three or four years. It was very grim, but eventually I did getting a job with a living wage. In marketing. For a craft brewery.

Ironically, I spend much of my time now doing graphic design. Ad agencies (another dinosaur) are so costly that we do most of it internally. We receive lots of requests for print advertising, and I'm always struck by the expense. Who can afford that? How measurable are the results? Increasingly, we are investing in social media. And we focus on earned media through relationships with content generators and influencers.

My writing skills are handy, but my value is more as a cross-disciplinary workhorse.

I am one of the lucky ones. Daily Variety, which used to be my bread and butter, stopped publishing about two years ago. Most of my friends still in journalism have to file straight to the web, within moments of getting the story. An editor checks it later, if at all. And nobody I know who writes gets paid very well. Most of them have side gigs, are teaching, writing a book, working on a script or TV or consulting gig. One or two are online content farm editors. The writers get paid next to nothing.

It's sad. I wonder if journalism schools are still cranking 'em out and what the students' prospects are.

Trends: I, who used to get three papers and half a dozen magazines, don't subscribe to a single magazine or newspaper. I, who used to cover the TV and film industry, rarely go to the movies. I have no TV. I get Netflix--primarily for my daughter. I read books. Mostly paper ones.

I get the majority of my news from CBC radio and a bit online. Occasionally I flip through the local (free, advertiser-supported, but not by us) paper, which is part of a chain and is laid out in India. I really feel for the local reporters.

That's my two cents. Best of luck in staying gainfully employed and engaging in thoughtful discourse.

Tamsen Tillson
Bracebridge Ontario

James King, Victoria said...

It is hard to disagree with your analysis, at least superficially. Considered in greater depth I wonder if there isn't something fundamentally wrong and unsustainable about the corporate business model which has been (and still is) running the newspaper business. I've had a look at Glacier Media's corporate profile and, if you'll take a moment to check, I think you'll find they are very profitable...
There may be some parts of their newspaper operation (Kamloops for example) where returns are negative but, if the owners of Glacier (or Torstar, Postmedia or Black Press for that matter) weren't so concerned with producing results for institutional shareholders and maintaining share prices then I think a case could be made that newspapers could still manage to keep employing people and fulfilling their so-called objective of reporting and analyzing.

The sad fact is that the people who run these companies don't really care for their employees, their communities or the future of the news business any longer...if they ever did.

Jody Paterson said...

Thanks, Tamsen and James - good points all. Tamsen, I moved on in 2004 and left journalism, so no worries personally as the poor industry crashes, other than I'm very sad to see it in this state. James, I agree with you that corporate ownership was a turning point - and not a good one - for community newspapers. The quality suffered as the corporations tried for a uniform look across all their many papers, and they were unable to respond to news needs in different communities. And that drive for more shareholder returns is a killer for any industry, because things can't just stay moderately profitable, they have to be increasingly profitable year after year. Plus I think a newspaper benefits from having a leader (publisher) who lives in the community, is from the community, and can respond to the concerns of fellow citizens by tinkering with the paper. Plus a local owner values the local voice, which is what has really been lost over these years.

e.a.f. said...

Newspapers did not change with the times, nor did they continue to provide News. They provided sports and press releases from governments. Its been a long time since a newspaper did a series on something of importance so people actually would want to read a paper.

I stopped buying the Sun and Province 10 yrs ago. I read my two local free papers, which I would actually pay for, if required.

If I want to read news, I check Al jezer on line.

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