Newspapers in big trouble, but they still have options

The recent federal report showing a steep decline in newspaper jobs over the last 15 years was a blunt reminder of how far the newspaper industry has fallen. From 2001 to 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, newspapers lost almost 60 percent of their workers, and were on track to being eclipsed by most, if not all, major media industries.

My Twitter feed lit up with declarations that newspapers were all but over. Mindy McAdams, a University of Florida journalism professor, urged that J-schools quit teaching students how to become newspaper reporters and focus instead on teaching digital skills. “Newspapers are dead,” she wrote.

I wouldn’t quibble much with the rhetorical point. Newspapers are going to be hard pressed to stay alive. Print advertising, newspapers’ revenue mainstay, has been declining sharply for a decade now, at about the same rate as employment declines. But it’s not just the printed sheet that’s in danger. Despite significant attempts at reinvention, newspaper publishers face a considerable challenge in growing or even sustaining their digital operations as well.

I asked media analyst Gordon Borrell about newspapers’ prospects. His bleak answer: “If I was forced to make a prediction, it would be that no printed newspapers would exist in 2027 that published more than once a week. Those left would be in rural or resort areas that had high populations of senior citizens. There is no ‘emergent model’ for a local newspaper other than that.” (See more on Borell’s predictions later.)


Does that mean we’re going to see wholesale shutdowns of newspaper companies? Probably. Technology has shattered the newspaper business model. With the exception of the major national publications, newspapers haven’t shown how they can migrate robustly to a digital world. I agree with the title and substance of a recent blog post by Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a local digital startup in upstate New York: “Only Entrepreneurs Will Save Journalism.”

But I’d make two points about the newspapers-are-toast scenario.

First, despite their greatly weakened state, newspapers are still the dominant creators of news and information in most communities. Their printed sheets are a much thinner, much reduced product. But they’re still there, in most places now supplemented by digital resources. Most newspapers still have the capacity to provide basic information about their communities and, on occasion, to expose wrongdoing. This month’s Pulitzer prizes for the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times and the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail provided fresh evidence of just how much. We should remember, too, that in most small communities in the United States, newspapers are the only robust source of local news. As Margaret Sullivan wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Even weakened, regional newspaper journalism is still making a powerful difference today.”

Second, I make the above point not because I think it will stay this way but because newspapers still have an opportunity to innovate to the betterment of their communities. Some owners will milk their assets dry and then turn out the lights. But I believe there will be other possibilities. Not all will involve preservation of the entity we now call the newspaper company. But these alternatives could help strengthen the future of news and information in their communities. (When I say newspapers in this blog, I mean both their print and digital operations unless otherwise indicated.)

In other words, this doesn’t have to be a binary, survive-as-is vs. die question. Newspapers, some of them, could find a way to morph into very different (albeit probably smaller) news providers.

Here are some alternate scenarios (with more detail later):

  • Newspaper companies may discover a new or improved subsidy model to replace some of the advertising loss. They haven’t succeeded in a decade of trying, but the game isn’t over.
  • Newspapers may abandon their decades-long model of being a one-stop source for all community news and choose a limited number of topics in which to specialize – topics that could command a sufficient subsidy.
  • They may replicate the Philadelphia model, in which a wealthy community member (such as Philadelphia’s Gerry Lenfest) buys the newspaper’s assets and turns them into a nonprofit that is supported, in part, by a continuing stream of philanthropy.
  • Newspapers may take a larger role in forming networks or co-operatives that spread the cost of newsgathering while strengthening content.

I want to back up here. A decade ago, when the print advertising slide began, some people thought these future scenarios would have played out by now. By 2009, when both the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer silenced their presses, it seemed that the Internet had finally caught up to the newspaper money machine. Perhaps the American daily might go fairly quickly.

By then I had left 35-plus years of newspapering, most recently as Washington editor for McClatchy, and was newly installed as a researcher at USC Annenberg. It seemed a perfect time to be watching this historic digital revolution. I began to focus on the promising new entrepreneurship under way in California, in which journalists were launching local online sites by the dozens. It seemed to me, at the time, that they offered new hope that journalists could continue serving their communities in a digital era. Fast-forward to today, and… well, newspapers are still standing, but online news operations have had their own revenue struggles.


Newspapers, it turns out, have been able to keep their presses operating and layer on digital operations by massively cutting expenses. That can’t go on forever, obviously – though weeklies and other small newspapers probably have a longer life-expectancy than metro dailies — but it’s striking how much they have done with a lot, lot less. Digital news startups, meanwhile, have run into a double whammy on the advertising side: Digital ads are worth a fraction of their print counterparts, and Facebook and other tech behemoths have proven to be superior advertising vehicles for many local businesses. The startups’ challenges have given newspapers time to find digital models that might sustain their businesses, but so far they’ve had only limited success.

Why do I focus on newspapers here? Isn’t it true that digital startups will spawn the real future of community news? Yes, I believe they will.

From nonprofits like Pro Publica and Voice of San Diego, to for-profits like Buzzfeed and Politico, entrepreneurs are likely to create thousands of news-and-information businesses in the coming years, in ways we can’t imagine today and in ways that newspapers will find difficult to replicate. It’s not hard to believe, a few years down the road, that a community will be better served by a compilation of digital news sources than it was by its newspaper.

But neither do I believe that nothing bad will happen if local newspapers die. The location of online news startups will be spotty at best, and already-forming news “deserts” are certain to get bigger. (See terrific research on news deserts by Penny Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina.) As far as the eye can see, communities will be better off if local newspapers find some kind of successful digital model.

Let’s go back to that list of possible ways newspapers could find new sustainability:

Develop a new business model that subsidizes journalism

It seems unlikely that advertising will continue to provide the primary subsidy for digital news. But what about subscription or membership models?

Subscription revenue is looking more promising for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, but conventional wisdom holds that the same strategy can’t work for local newspapers. Borrell buys that: “Smaller newspapers can’t drive significant subscribers from outside their area, as the larger papers can. The larger papers are getting more than half their subscriptions from outside the area.  Not likely to happen for the Peoria Journal Star.”

But remember when conventional wisdom held that digital subscriptions wouldn’t work anywhere? As Ken Doctor recently reported in The Street, subscriptions are soaring at not just the Times and Post, but also the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Slate, and… the Boston Globe, which is nearing 80,000 digital subscribers. Perhaps we need to watch the subscription model a while longer before declaring that it can’t work for the metro newspaper. It may work well enough to subsidize a more limited role.

NPR-type memberships also offer intriguing possibilities. The Dutch startup De Correspondent uses memberships to bankroll its experiment in trust-based journalism, so far quite successfully (56,000 members paying $63 a year). De Correspondent is about to try its model in the United States. I can’t think of a reason a metro daily couldn’t try it. Even if they don’t, newspapers should absolutely steal De Correspondent’s mission of placing trust at the center of their work.

There are other digital subsidy possibilities, some of them already being used by newspapers: marketing service operations, events, and of course new permutations of advertising models.

Develop niche verticals

Offering readers a little about most everything in their community made sense for the monopoly newspaper. Not so much for the equivalent of a startup. Borrell says he foresees “printed newspapers eliminating any ‘of record’ coverage and concentrating on something that others can’t touch — more in-depth reporting and analysis. They’ll likely morph into intellectual analyses and debates about a locality’s big issues, with an occasional human interest feature.”

But that’s only one of many possibilities that could prove promising to an otherwise dying newspaper. Entertainment and business coverage are two obvious choices, though already spoken for by alternative newspapers in many places. But you could imagine verticals on topics like schools or local sports, or under the right circumstances, the civic, government and political life of the community.

Timing is key, and tricky. Few publishers want to pull the plug on their as-yet profitable business models. Among many considerations, newspapers still have a healthy revenue stream publishing government legal notices – a revenue source that would be more vulnerable if moved to a few niche topics.

Perhaps more challenging, most mid-size newspapers are owned by chains or investment companies, where the obstacles to reinvention and innovation of this type can be much higher than under local ownership.

Find a wealthy philanthropist who cares about news

It’s too early to make a judgment about the Philadelphia experiment. But Gerry Lenfest’s $88 million purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and, and their subsequent conversion to a nonprofit, could prove to be a model even the smallest of communities might replicate.

Lenfest’s nonprofit has a mission much bigger than continuation of those existing news organizations. It also has a research function intended to inform journalism far beyond Philadelphia.

But the idea that philanthropy, whether from an individual or an institution, could help finance a newspaper’s transition to digital has promise. We won’t really know, until newspapers begin closing in droves, or threatening to close, whether philanthropy will emerge as a significant subsidy of local news. But it could, in places. (And for that matter, I hope local philanthropy continues to develop as a driving force of news startups as well.)

Form partnerships, networks… innovate!

The life cycle of collaboration efforts for newspapers was probably predictable: at first extreme wariness, then a few experiments, now more robust but still cautious.

This is an arena that remains wide open for newspaper newsrooms. If earlier efforts were guided by the principle that newspapers be the dominant partner, or that they must lose no competitive advantage, those strategies can now be shed.

In her recent report on news deserts, Abernathy wrote: “Newspaper publishers and editors need to develop partnerships and networks with other news organizations that stress collaboration instead of competition.” She cited the example of how the Tampa Bay Times, collaborating with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. But there are many other opportunities. Ken Doctor, in NiemanLab, recently told the story of how the Providence Journal used its crime archives to partner with the popular podcast, “Crimetown.”

If Pro Publica, the Associated Press and the New York Times can collaborate on a dime, deciding one Friday evening to pool resources in compiling net-worth reports for White House staff, anyone can collaborate. And almost certainly they should. There are opportunities for collaboration with other news organizations, to be sure, but also with non-journalism entities such as libraries, universities, NGOs and so on.

Newspapers have reached the point where they have almost nothing to lose by going full blast on innovation. Even if their efforts don’t result in newspaper survival, experiments could plant the seeds for new enterprises that at least preserve some of the newspaper’s DNA.

Summing up

The threat to newspapers’ survival has long produced a two-sided debate. One side declares that newspapers are vital and must be saved; the other side declares that newspapers’ death is inevitable because they are incapable of innovation.

But reality doesn’t demand a future in which newspapers are either preserved or dead. Through innovation, newspaper companies might be able to invent a future that, while diminished, could preserve their function as a provider of community news and information.

Achieving this future will be very, very difficult. There still is no sure-fire model for financing digital news production, and newspapers face multiple built-in challenges that work against their becoming entrepreneurial and innovative.

But as their economic positions grow more tenuous, they may find improved conditions for innovation – perhaps more support from a public grown alarmed, perhaps a stronger sense of: “What the hell, let’s try it.”

Go for it. Time’s a’ wasting.


Gordon Borrell on newspapers’ future

I asked media analyst Gordon Borrell about newspapers’ prospects. He first addressed print publications.

The trajectory of printed newspapers in terms of circulation and profitability is quite predictable, and not good… Ten years from now, printed newspapers will still likely exist, but much like the Old Farmer’s Almanac still exists.

Borrell is not much more optimistic about newspapers’ digital futures. Digital journalism, he said, “is a costly venture currently without a significant supportive business model… When the print product goes, so will ‘journalism’ to a great extent.”

The vanishing coverage of rural America

IMG_2649I’ve been wanting for some time to address a topic dear to my heart: the ever-shrinking news coverage of rural America. For a while I held off because the idea felt too much like a nostalgic lament. It is certainly that, in part. But I decided to write because this is a perfect moment for news organizations to revisit their wide abandonment of agriculture and rural issues, and to take steps to better represent this part of American life.

A few days ago my wife, Geneva Overholser, and I attended the funeral for George Anthan, my friend and former colleague and one of the best agriculture journalists of our time. I had the good fortune of working with George for many years at The Des Moines Register, including three years when he was my boss in The Register’s Washington Bureau. It’s startling to think that George’s nearly four-decade-long body of path-breaking work covering federal farm programs and the agricultural industry is now a lost beat. But that is mostly the case, and it unfortunately reflects a larger truth: American newspapers have moved ever farther from reporting on farming and rural life. My sense is that the same trend is true for TV news as well.

Something else made me want to write about this topic, and that’s this year’s political campaign and our growing understanding of the deep fault lines that are alienating Americans from each another. I wonder if one piece of the disaffection visible in rural areas isn’t the fact that many no longer see themselves represented in news coverage at the state and national levels. Continue reading The vanishing coverage of rural America

Journalism and the predictions game

My colleague at New York University, Jay Rosen, has an uncommon gift for reducing things to their essence, to a simple phrase. The most well-known, I’d guess, is his naming of “the people formerly known as the audience.” (His PressThink blog on this is 10 years old this month.) I’m also fond of “the production of innocence,” Jay’s formulation of how the political press attempts to be objective. Lately, though, I’ve been mulling a single word Jay uses to describe political reporters: “savvy.” He wrote on his blog:  “In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts… Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be.”

Back when I practiced daily journalism, this characterization used to rankle me. Today, no longer reading political journalism through the lens of a daily practitioner, I’m rankled for a different reason. I’m increasingly unhappy with political reporting that seems aimed at the insider crowd.

(Disclosure: When I refer to political reporters, I know I’m speaking about me and how I spent some of my career, reporting and editing at The Des Moines Register and McClatchy’s Washington bureau. So there’s that.)

As Jay has written, there are many different manifestations of the “savvy” phenomenon. One that has long bugged me is framing policy proposals primarily – or only – through a political lens.  Such as: “In a move to shore up blue-collar electoral support, President Such-And-Such today proposed….”  As if that were the most important way for a reader to understand an idea that could end up affecting his or her life. I actually think this particular practice has subsided a bit, though it’s impossible to know.

But another example that has gnawed at me this campaign season is political reporters’ love affair with predictions, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t subsiding. I fear some reporters are moving toward the standard set by sportswriters, for whom predictions are a routine and casual part of their arsenal. Continue reading Journalism and the predictions game

An opening for local news startups?

Has the moment finally arrived for the flourishing of local, digital-native news businesses?

A case can be made that it has, though I’ll admit that I thought that was true as long ago as 2008, when I began watching California’s hyperlocal news sites at USC’s Center for Communication Leadership and Policy.

The three dozen or so new digital enterprises we were studying then were full of ambition and promise – even though they collectively met Jan Schaffer’s famous description of hyperlocals as “not yet a business.” These California digital entrepreneurs were leading a revolution that looked, to me anyway, quite ready to take off.

But for the most part it wasn’t ready. It’s perplexing, to say the least, that seven years later, digital local news sites have made only halting progress toward shedding Schaffer’s “not yet” label.

Only in rare cases, involving rare people, have new local news initiatives robustly sustained their way. The business models that would enable a true flowering of digital local news have not yet emerged.

But things may be looking up, at least a little. Continue reading An opening for local news startups?

A turnaround for network news?

Is the evening network newscast on the rebound?

After a disastrous 30-year period in which the U.S. audience fell by more than half, are the Big Three staging an against-the-odds comeback? And could it be happening just as everyone else in Old Media is being rocked by things digital?

As unlikely as that seems, something is happening. The evening news audience has now grown in three of the last four years, according to Nielsen, and is up about 12 percent since 2010. It appears 2015 will be yet another growth year. Compared to the 57 percent decline that began in 1980, this must feel like a Super Bowl victory to network executives.

The long decline of the evening news was actually worse than that 57 percent number because it came during a time when the U.S. population grew by more than 80 million people. On a per-capita basis, then, the drop has been more on the order of a calamitous 70 percent. That’s comparable to newspapers’ plummeting circulation that occurred during the same three decades. Continue reading A turnaround for network news?