Still not at rock bottom
It has been more than a decade since the newspaper business was rocked to its foundations by the Great Recession and the ascent of the web. Stability, not to mention growth, remains elusive.
If anything, the industry is becoming even more unsettled. Recent months have seen a torrent of developments that would have been impossible to imagine just a few years ago.
The conclusion is clear: the industry hasn’t hit bottom yet, but anyone who says he’s figured out how to make money in newspaper journalism has, at best, found only a temporary solution.
Unless industry leaders can come up with some smart solutions fast, there’s going to be a newspaper bloodbath worse than anything that’s been seen before, if and when another recession comes along.
For those in the business world whose communications plan depend to one degree or another on print media, this raises a pressing question: How do you tell your company’s story in this modern, ever-shifting environment if the storytellers fade away?
• Cutting Costs, Cutting Coverage
A hedge fund that controls newspaper chain GateHouse Media has announced plans to buy Gannett, which owns roughly 100 dailies including USA Today, in a deal worth $1.4 billion. When it happens — stockholders vote on November 14 — the combined company will own 260 newspapers, making it easily the biggest newspaper company in the United States.
Gannett was once seen as the industry’s chief cost-cutter, putting out thinly staffed papers at a large profit. No more. Now GateHouse holds that honour, cutting so much that some of its titles are known as “ghost papers”, newspapers with familiar names that still exist on a few pages, but are bereft of most original content; the words and pictures come from sister publications.
Those old Gannett papers look robust by comparison. But GateHouse says its equation works and its newspapers are profitable.
Gannett and GateHouse have already said their merger will allow further efficiencies. One wonders: how thin can they go?
In the long run, history has shown, reaping temporary profits by cutting news coverage backfires by driving readers away.
• A Death in the Family
Meanwhile in Ohio, the once-unthinkable has happened — a family-owned newspaper that was decidedly not a ghost paper, The Vindicator in Youngstown, closed and Youngstown became the largest city in the US without a daily.
In its final hours The Vindy, with a circulation of just 25,000, had an editorial staff of about 40, a big team by today’s standards. Its death was so shocking that a nearby competitor, The Tribune Chronicle, bought its subscription lists, hired a few staffers and slapped The Vindicator name atop a new edition. It’s not quite a ghost, but it’s close.
This is hardly a new trend. According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 47 per cent between 2008 and 2018, to 38,000 workers from about 71,000.
Far from the working-class Mahoning Valley where Vindicator journalists toiled for 150 years, another merger has shaken up the Manhattan glitterati. Vox bought New York Magazine, which was itself born in the late 1960s from the ashes of the shuttered New York Herald Tribun. An internet native buying a storied print title? You hear the word “synergy” a lot, but, again, cutting costs by eliminating duplication seems to be at least part of the motivation.
• Positive Developments (Maybe)
One of the bright spots in the newspaper business in the past few years has been the bulking up of the Los Angeles Times, which was bought, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million. More than a 100 staffers were added, and it seemed that the major East Coast papers would once again have a heavy-hitting West Coast competitor.
But like many who have come before, Dr Soon-Shiong is learning that he has entered a challenging industry, as romantic and vital as it may be.
Los Angeles Times editors sent the staff a panicked memo recently, demanding that everyone redouble efforts to increase online subscriptions. The goal the company had set for 2019 was 150,000 new subscribers, which would bring the total to a still paltry 300,000. The total signed on at the time of the memo? Thirteen thousand.
Another bright spot has been the rise of donor-funded journalism sites, such as ProPublica and The Marshall Project, which give their work free to newspapers. One of the newest such sites, The City in New York, has shown considerable strength in reporting the news in the Big Apple. The founding editor-in-chief, Jere Hester, estimates that its stories have been linked to or republished 750 times in only six months.
It is a testament to the strength of The City’s work, but also a demonstration of how desperate short-staff newspapers are for content.
And, the question remains whether this is a sustainable model. When a downturn comes, will philanthropists continue to give so generously to these efforts? There is little reason to be optimistic about the answer.
• The Three Heavy Hitters
The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal continue to thrive, seemingly against all odds, and although just a few years ago The New York Times and The Washington Post appeared to be on the ropes. All three have lots going for them, including massive scale, big exclusives and worldwide brand recognition. But there’s more to it than that.
In Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post has an ultra-wealthy owner willing to spend on strong news coverage, even if means taking some losses. In the Sulzbergers, The New York Times has family owners, deeply committed to their legacy.
And Rupert Murdoch has never hesitated to invest large sums to sustain money-losing publications that he values — think New York Post — so The Wall Street Journal has a reliable safety net if it ever falters.
What’s more, all three papers have been aggressive and creative on the internet. The Washington Post uses a fire-hose approach, spraying hundreds of stories out into the world to bring eyeballs. The New York Times, after some missteps — for example, Times Select, a program that puts some content, including columnists, behind a paywall — has carefully built up its online readership, one by one, with a smart-metered model.
The Wall Street Journal was the first leading publication to charge for online content back in the early days of the web, 1997, and this year it reported a very healthy 2.5 million subscribers, digital and print.
The New York Times and The Washington Post are major players in the ongoing drama in Washington, which of course makes them targets of the President’s ire. Counterintuitively, that attention has likely helped their bottom lines. In August, for example, The New York Times reported $37.9 million in profit in the second quarter, although that was down from $40 million last year, on earnings of $436.25 million.
The Wall Street Journal does not get as many high-profile scoops as The New York Times and The Washington Post, but certainly gets its fair share. And that may be a good thing when fascination with Donald Trump subsides, and with it circulation at the papers that have such public battles with him.
And one has to wonder: if Trump were to go away, would the bottom lines of The New York Times and The Washington Post get punished? (The President clearly thinks so.) Would their strategies be as successful in a less fractured, less newsy environment? Only time will tell.
• A Special Kind of Player
In a class by itself is the Financial Times, which consistently delivers high-quality news and commentary. But the FT, which is owned by Nikkei Inc, a Japanese holding company, is woefully short on advertising, which raises the question of how long it can maintain its present high standards. It’s a good bet, though, that the FT will stay in business just as long as it provides its owners with a window to the world they cannot otherwise get.
Implications for business: Landing a positive story in a major publication has always carried weight and often prompted follow-up stories elsewhere. Now, with only a few of the big guys still standing, those stories can have even more impact, perhaps leading to coverage on the evening news and driving up stock prices. But the route to getting such attention is tougher.
Once upon a time, smaller papers hungered for news to fill their pages. One or two of those stories could get you the attention of bigger papers. But no more: the smaller papers, the ghost papers, are so understaffed with so little space that everything but the biggest local news gets elbowed out.
In this new environment, companies have to tell their own stories. Social media, and sites such as Contently, can be used to populate Google and create rich brand identities. After all, the big papers know how to Google, too.
• Robert Dilenschneider is the founder and principal of the Dilenschneider Group, which provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies, and leading families and individuals around the world
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