Friday, January 10, 2014
Nothing sudden about the death of newspapers
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.