Newspapers unmatched credulity about their own future


There will always be a need for something to line the bottoms of birdcages.


Yeah, from my small-town experience: it’s the same out here in Flyover Country. The last two jobs I’ve had, the average subscriber age was older than the average FOX News viewer.

To make it worse, there’s almost no such thing as a local newspaper anymore. Oh, if you actually look at the thing, it’s got a local name in the banner, and you might find locals’ bylines in the paper. But it’s probably not local. If it’s like a lot of papers, it’s owned by a holdings company. You might think this is good news–after all, a lot of those papers were in dire straits when they were snapped up–but they’re just zombies. You’ll find out what the latest HS sports scores are, you’ll see the latest ribbon cuttings, and you’ll find out about the local plays, musicals, and club luncheons. And not much else. You probably won’t find anything negative about an advertiser, or a local politician, ever.

Here’s the website of one of my former jobs:

I can’t say much; as far as I know, years later, I’m still held to the NDA. What I can say, though, is that the last I knew, that website was run out of New York by the corporate office, and that while the local sales staff sells ads into the website, some of those local advertisers buy through Google. As you can imagine, the local papers are supposed to be bringing in revenue.

I remember, under a previous corporate ownership, fighting to change over from a company-wide CMS that was contracted out to another media company, and switch to something like Joomla! or Drupal, and sell our own advertising. Thankfully, the next company did something in-house, and it was excellent in the beginning…but man…things I can’t talk about. :frowning:

I’m not sure how local media is supposed to survive if it gets cut out of the financial picture by their corporate masters. No amount of replacing reporters with bots will fix this.


My local paper is a Gannett franchise. I was a happy subscriber until they raised their prices, put up a paywall (and a ridiculous amount of ads), and then cut most of the local staff in favor of mostly homogenized USA Today (and some AP) content. They still have some good local coverage one can’t find elsewhere (especially since my area has a very small number of news media), but I’d rather do without than pay $1.75 for a Sunday paper that’s mostly P&G coupons and syndicated content.

The fact they don’t understand this is a turn-off is more infuriating than even the attempt to insult the readers’ intelligence by telling us there’s “more” in the new paper.


Our “local” is owned by Gannett, corporate parent of USA Today, and so now we don’t have local writers with insights about national or international stories, we just have essentially a photocopy of whatever USA Today prints.

“tradtional” newspaper publishers and their shareholders are having trouble with one big issue which is under-reported to the general public: the revenues for advertising online are much less than print ads brought in back in their “glory days”. This is as it should be, since the supply of advertising opportunities online is much larger, driving prices down due to competition. The “demand” for ads is a lot less, too - look at all the ad-blocker options we have. So, they don’t make “enough” from advertising and they try to implement a “paywall” - but if there are established sources of non-“paywall” news, those rarely bring in the revenue hoped for.


At least a partial struggle contemporary newspaper journalism is their ever-increasing dearth of paid internships while still requiring internships on the resume. To me it guarantees today’s children of the rich and wealthy will have a much better time of furthering their class agenda in a media environment that only the rich and wealthy can afford to work.


So, does this put newspapers at the ‘denial’ or ‘bargaining’ stage of grief?

It’s understandable that harrowing mortality salience will give rise to a certain amount of magical thinking; but what is ‘understandable’ and what is ‘actually telling you something true about the world’ are often not the same. At all.


Our Gannett-owned local daily is a good illustration of the evolution of print journalism. It was family-owned but they sold it for a bundle in the late 90s booming acquisition years. Around the same time, they constructed a new building.

So, this 100 year-old paper hit the top of the ad revenue rollercoaster when it was already a throbbing bundle of debt and proceeded to bleed newsroom staff and advertisers for over a decade. It’s no wonder that they’ve lost readers-- the product has gone absolutely to shit (the last issue I read maxed out at 32 pages including the pullout ads) and prices have gone up.

What’s amazing to me is that so many publications went down the same road. Newspapers used to be a lucrative business with relatively high margins. Nobody, it seems, had the foresight to stash some of that cash in case of a downturn. When the downturn came, the industry standard of high levels of debt leveraged by historic assets and profitability meant that everyone went into the same duck and cover mode instead of attempting new models since there wasn’t enough of a financial buffer to allow extended experimentation.

Why was there such a uniform response to the changes that hit the industry? Was it just a matter of media consolidation? In an ecological sense, it’s like watching a monoculture population get wiped out by a novel pathogen and we’re only now seeing the emergence of new mutations that can thrive in the changed environment.

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Funny coincidence, huh?

There seem to be quite a few, along those lines…

You and I don’t often see eye to eye; I really appreciate this perspective.

Again, things I can’t talk about, so this has to be vague: one of those former jobs, back in the early 90s, had a sizeable staff, respectably large circulation, but not such great ad revenue. They sold to a large media company, who had this brilliant idea: instead of making heads roll in advertising, let’s cut everyone down to a skeleton crew! They went from an 18k circulation (good for a small town) down to about half that in a short time, and never recovered.

My local newspapers in Halifax are simply way too biased and the level of research is nearly zero. If there is an accident they don’t mention any facts. If certain political parties screw up they don’t cover it. A recent lawyer was going through a trial and while they covered it they didn’t mention the various criminal charges that he had recently faced and then they covered a campaign to support him.

They don’t investigate any of our local politicians to see if they are corrupt. They don’t mention critical facts. For instance there is a local ferry that typically has a 112 passengers and 120 crew. But they are missing monster facts such as the fact that the ferry has a capacity of 1,215 or that the ferry numbers in the past were much larger, and that the government totally screwed over the ferry company.

And don’t get me started on the fact that they give a free ride to the scumbags who run the local car dealerships and real-estate agencies (i.e. people who take out endless advertisements).

They might think that all the above is Realpolitik but where people under 55 have limiless internet access along with serious google-fu and well tuned BS detectors this kind of crap is what is killing most newspapers.

There’s something to be said for a good weekend paper. I just don’t have the time on weekdays to read a paper in the morning, but it is nice to curl up a coffee and a thick newspaper to read on the weekends. I think the weekend paper will survive (at least the big regional papers if not local papers).

American Society of News Editors president David Boardman rails against
the happy-talk optimism of the newspaper industry, who insist that the
decline isn’t that bad and will shortly turn around.

Mr. Boardman, that ship has sailed years ago (more accurately, it sank). That business has managed to decimate itself out of existence, but is still in denial, always looking for a knight in shining armor to save it. Not even a snazzy weekend edition will erase the serious problems it created for itself. They aren’t the gate-keepers anymore, but there are other problems it neglected and even created with its own insular arrogance.

Years ago, I pitched a story to Columbia Journalism Review about the problems and what the industry could still do to stem the hemorrhaging (I was writing about the business of journalism at the time for the trades and could see what was happening up close), and was dismissed – that research made it into my [book][1] a couple of years later, but one of the most fatal problems at that time was the generational gap – too few reporters/columnists who were under 30 who were writing about the hard news issues affecting the younger crowd (“Are your children safe at school?” versus “Are YOU safe at school”) – so that group found their pipelines elsewhere. That’s it. Done deal.

Newspapers are dead, but somebody just forgot to bury them.

There are too many problems – narrow focus, credibility problems of both factual and partisan origins, resistance to true, necessary changes – and that fatally wounded that segment of journalism in North America.

The speech is cute – but way too little, way too late…

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