Feature - Spring/summer 2007

PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION

 

The Uncertain Future of Your Daily Newspaper

By Mark Jurkowitz


It was around the turn of the millennium that Boston Globe editor Matt Storin (ND ’64), running a major daily with a circulation of nearly 500,000, saw the first telltale signs of trouble.

“When big news broke, ordinarily circulations skyrocketed,” he recalls. But that rule wasn’t holding for the 1997 and 1999 deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr.

“I noted that it was not quite having the impact on sales,” Storin says. “Why? Because [people were] going to the Internet.”

Fast forward to 2007 and these comments from New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reported in an Israeli newspaper: “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care either.”

After years of surviving circulation declines and Internet-inspired fears, it is fair to say that in roughly a decade—the time between Storin’s warning signs and Sulzberger’s statement—the newspaper industry has gone from relative normalcy to cataclysmic transformation.

It was a perfect media storm. An aging, eroding readership, the growing disillusionment of Wall Street, the emergence of online competitors, and the bad habits of a business that was too insulated and too resistant to change conspired to ring down the curtain on the daily newspaper industry as we have known it.

“More and more, I savor the moment before dawn when I head down the driveway in my jammies and pick up a couple of extraordinary resources whose days, at least in this form, are numbered,” e-mails Bill Mitchell (ND ’71), editor of Poynteronline, referring to his local paper, the St. Petersburg Times, and the New York Times.

Noting that many big metro papers are the most threatened and that some local papers will survive longer, Storin says, "I think the paid-for print product is going to disappear from the market … sooner than the consensus prognostication … I could see it happening in two to three years.”

If the days are numbered for the mass medium that spent the most on reporting resources, functioned as an assignment desk for other media, and most aggressively filled the watchdog role, the big question is what comes next for the news consumer.

Who, if anyone, delivers the kind of in-depth, sophisticated journalism that was once the proud province of major dailies? Do we disintegrate into collections of specialized news colonies organized by ideology and interests? How will we sort out news from rumor?

In this fluid environment, the most honest answer may be that no one really knows. But some emerging trends and knowledgeable observers offer possible answers.

There’s an expectation that however the shakeout plays out, a few prestigious newspaper brands will remain as news gatherers and distributors. Many traditional dailies may disappear as smaller and narrower niche publications replace them. The definition of a journalist will change with the increasing participation of regular citizens. Spurred by this explosion of “citizen media,” much of the editorial content will be “hyperlocal” coverage of community issues. Communities themselves could be redefined by the next generation of newspaper entrepreneurs who are reconfiguring the concept of “news you can use.”

If there is a unifying theme to these projections and scenarios, it is decentralization, fragmentation and specialization. If there’s a prevailing mood, it is a mix of inevitability, uncertainty and crossed fingers. “Journalism doesn’t go away,” says Stephen Gray, managing director of the “Newspaper Next” project, which is trying to reinvent the industry. “But how does the financial side of this work? I don’t know.”

Chaos and Crisis

If a single newspaper is the poster child for industry upheaval, it is the Los Angeles Times. Bought by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000, the Times had already lost more than 200 newsroom jobs under Tribune ownership when publisher Jeffrey Johnson and editor Dean Baquet—in what was widely viewed as an act of remarkable courage—publicly rebelled against additional company-mandated cuts last year.

As the turmoil grew, a group of Los Angeles civic leaders wrote to the Tribune Co., declaring that “perhaps a different mode of leadership would better serve” the city. Entertainment mogul David Geffen and billionaire Eli Broad emerged as potential buyers of the paper. Under intense shareholder pressure, the Tribune Co. put itself on the auction block. Newsroom martyrs Johnson and Baquet were forced out of their jobs.

On Jan. 24, Baquet’s replacement, James O’Shea, speaking to a badly buffeted Times staff, opened by stating the painfully obvious. “With our industry in turmoil, our company for sale and our futures uncertain,” he said, “it’s easy to forget that journalism is a great calling.”

The Times’ predicament may have been extreme. But it was representative of the overall environment.

In its 2007 “State of the News Media” study, the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that for the last three years, the newspaper industry has cumulatively lost 6.3 percent of its daily and 8 percent of its Sunday circulation—part of an inexorable decades-long decline. In 2006, pretax earnings at print outlets were off about 8 percent from the previous year and overall ad revenues were flat. With Wall Street punishing the newspaper business for being past its prime, shares of publicly traded newspaper companies took a 20 percent hammering in 2005 and lost, on average, another 14 percent last year.

Retrenchment and contraction are everywhere. Deep staffing cuts hit papers from the Dallas Morning News to the Akron Beacon Journal. Papers literally shrunk and sections were cut. The Boston Globe, its circulation now under 400,000, closed its three foreign bureaus. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced plans to offer buyouts to about 80 staffers and to reduce the number of weekly community editions from 13 to four.

Meanwhile, an ownership model dominated by big publicly held companies is crumbling as everyone from disgruntled investors to irate community leaders clamor for CEOs’ heads and corporate breakups.

Knight Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain by circulation, disappeared in 2006, dealing its 32 papers after unhappy stockholders forced a sale. The future of the mighty Tribune Co.—which along with

newspapers owns about two dozen television stations and the Chicago Cubs—is now up in the air. In April, the Tribune board agreed to take the company private in a complex $8 billion deal that will transfer ownership to the employees and real estate mogul Sam Zell.

The poor performance of the New York Times’ New England properties has sparked considerable speculation that the company will sell the Boston Globe. An American Journalism Review story reported that the company’s 3.5 percent newspaper division operating profits in the third quarter of 2006 represented the worst margin for any publicly held newspaper company. And a stock price mired in the $20s has made it open season on Sulzberger’s stewardship.

The market value of newspapers also appears to be plunging. It was a surprise late last year when McClatchy sold the Star Tribune of Minneapolis for $530 million after paying $1.2 billion to acquire it just eight years earlier. Some assessments of the Boston Globe put the value of the paper at about half of the $1.1 billion the Times Co. paid for it in 1993.

There were hopes that wealthy entrepreneurs with genuine affection for their hometown dailies might be able to rescue them with a more benign, private ownership. In Los Angeles, Geffen threw his hat in the ring. In Boston, former General Electric chairman Jack Welch emerged as a possible white knight. But the experience in the one major city where this has happened has been sobering.

In May 2006, after Philadelphia public relations executive Brian Tierney and a team of investors bought the Inquirer and the Daily News for $562 million, Tierney declared that “the next great era in Philadelphia journalism begins today.” But after tough union negotiations and the announcement of major layoffs, the bloom is off the Tierney rose and morale is rocky. A Washington Post story on Tierney’s stewardship was headlined, “At the Inquirer, Shrink Globally, Slash Locally?”

Transitions to Cyberspace

And even as every newspaper pours resources and energy into its Web site, there will be no painless transition from dead trees to cyberspace. Online ad revenues—which represent less than 10 percent of the overall newspaper advertising income but had been growing at more than 30 percent a year—are beginning to level off. According to a recent piece by Poynter newspaper analyst Rick Edmonds, these revenues are expected to rise only by 22 percent in 2007. And then there’s that nagging problem of trying to get people to pay for online content.

Newspapers are no longer widely accused of using their Web sites for “shovelware,” (simply dumping their print content onto the Web site), but many are still juggling and struggling with the task of integrating their two main products and respective staffs.

Not surprisingly, one of the most atypical newspapers has been in the lead on that issue. The Wall Street Journal, which manages to be both a major national paper and a specialty product, was a pioneer in charging people for online information, and now has more than 800,000 paid online subscribers.

The Journal has recently announced much sharper boundaries between its online and print functions. The print Journal will be “focused on what the news means to you,” publisher L. Gordon Crovitz wrote in a column to readers, while the cyber Journal will be “focused on what’s happening right now.”

But The Wall Street Journal is the exception. Most online newspaper content is offered free of charge and online editions can’t be expected to toss economic life preservers.

“Online advertising and other initiatives are showing some promise, but show no signs of covering the entire shortfall,” says Bill Mitchell. “As a result, many news organizations are addressing the gap by reducing their investment in news—a perilous path that couples short-term benefit with potentially suicidal consequences long term.”

The Next Generation of News
A Few Global News Giants

Many newspaper readers may have noticed a decrease in homegrown bylines on stories from the state capitol, Washington D.C. and foreign hotspots. In this era of cutbacks, more newspapers are relying on wire services and outside correspondents for news that might have once been reported by their own staffs.

Not long ago, it was a point of pride for papers to chase stories anywhere around the globe. But in this atomizing news universe, fewer outlets will produce that kind of full-service journalism. The news of the future has already arrived in Washington, New York, Boston and Philadelphia with the introduction of free tabloids—the Metro and the Express—that offer a CliffsNotes version of a traditional newspaper. Designed to be read by busy urbanites on a 15-minute subway ride, they carry little, if any, original reporting.

Still, a number of media analysts expect that when the dust clears, there will be some big-name, old-media survivors.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the University of Maryland’s J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, says it’s likely that a few major players such as the New York Times and Washington Post will continue to be a source of what she calls “Big-J national and global journalism.”

“If you can’t add some unique value to a particular kind of news, let someone else provide it or contract with that provider so that your news organization can distribute it,” writes Schaffer in an e-mail. “There will be high-end markets for enterprise, investigative, explanatory journalism, for humor, expertise, punditry.”

Storin, who now teaches journalism in the Gallivan Program for Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame, sees the emergence of a kind of “NPR radio model.” That’s a reference to the public radio powerhouse that became a major generator and distributor of news in an era when most radio operations abandoned the reporting business.

In this brave new world, Storin predicts that “the New York Times will be the only paper that has full service international news.” He sees the prospect of “a consortium of top flight foreign reporters” to cover the world for larger outlets.

That also may mean that a future “Gulf War III” will not be covered by hundreds of embedded U.S. journalists, but primarily by a brigade of indigenous Iraqi journalists, says Storin. These reporters might provide better on-the-scene reporting, but a lack of U.S.-centric war reporting and analysis could come as a culture shock to news consumers here.

The Citizen Journalist

While local journalists may serve a larger role in international newsgathering, citizen journalists are coming to the forefront in community newsgathering.

“I think we need to test drive some … new models, new journalistic conventions … of communicating important information,” Schaffer asserts. “The epiphany for me in the citizen media world is how determined people are to get the news and information they need.”

“Citizen Media” describes hyperlocal Web sites that use citizen-generated content, from blogs to photos. Now that technology has given civic-minded citizens the means to enter the fray as publishers, they are doing so in droves.

A February 2007 J-Lab study revealed that there are already about 700-800 of these Web operations—pithily described as a “fusion of news and schmooze”—and the majority have been launched in the past two years.

The two-year-old Backfence network covers communities in Virginia, Maryland, California and Illinois. Its journalism, which includes everything from reviews of school plays to comments on local businesses to blogs about recreational facilities, is community generated.

H2otown is a site of “news and events” serving Watertown, Mass. Founded by local resident Lisa Williams, the outlet features information that springs from the grassroots level—discussions of a canceled town council meeting, photos showing a “Help Wanted” sign on a local hardware store, and a blog posting from an eyewitness to a fire scene.

Right now, many of these operations are mom-and-pop shop labors of love. According to the J-Lab study, 43 percent of the respondents said it cost less than $1,000 to launch their sites. But 80 percent said their operations provided local information not found anywhere else and 82 percent planned to stick with their venture.

Given the experimental nature of the “citizen media,” there are a number of business models, with some clearly showing promise. New West, a network of online communities in the Rocky Mountain region, is creating its own brand by spinning off related advertising and publishing ventures. Some sites, such as Bluffton Today in South Carolina and Massachusetts’ Wicked Local network, were created by mainstream media companies. And the prospect of more partnerships between traditional news operations and citizen content seems likely.

“I think news organizations ought to think about creating alliances with some of the best players instead of creating parallel operations that will never have the passion or caring about community that the best citizen media sites have,” notes Schaffer.

Mitchell sees perhaps a similar hybrid, venturing that the system could morph into “a combination of professional journalists doing the work only they can do and community members stepping into the realm of local-local news and information.”

News Just For You

A few years back, a research team led by a Harvard Business School professor combined with the American Press Institute to develop “Newspaper Next: The Transformation Project.” The project’s prognosis is stark, claiming that “the industry’s very survival is dependent on its ability to reframe completely the way it does business.”

In a recent column, Seattle Times editor-at-large Michael Fancher distilled that message this way: “To find their way amid these bewildering changes, media companies must shift their focus from products and services to the lives of customers.”

The headline on Fancher’s column—“How can we help you in your life? We want–and need–to know”—seemed like nothing less than a plea for guidance from readers. Once upon a time, journalists believed that news judgment flowed from the newsroom to the news consumer, that it was the journalist’s job to determine what the reader needed to know.

Traditionally, the journalism business’s attitude was “inner focused … we know what’s good for you,” says Stephen Gray of Newspaper Next.

But increasingly, as the industry faced hard times and fleeing readers, that philosophy was viewed as paternalistic, aloof, and bad for business. It gave way to focus groups, “news you can use,” and now, “Newspaper Next.”

The “Newspaper Next” mantra is “jobs to be done,” meaning a newspaper should be hired to help people achieve various tasks. “You just keep bumping into jobs to be done in your life,” explains Gray. “You need information from your own area … databases, user reviews … Anna [is] a 36-year-old mother of two with a full-time job … Let’s get her jobs done.”

Thus, for Anna, there is IndyMoms.com, a site from the Indianapolis Star that features advice from mothers to mothers on how to handle an unruly 9-year-old, a discussion of whether there’s a stigma attached to women who deliver children by Caesarean section, and a rundown on infant-friendly restaurants.

For women not quite ready for the maternity ward, there’s the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s “Best Bridal” site featuring wedding announcements, a wedding services directory of products from lingerie to mortgages, and a tale of how a mutual love for the St. Louis Cardinals led one happy couple into wedded bliss.

This transformation is an attempt, in many cases, to build an audience around the kind of coverage that might have only appeared once a year wrapped into a special advertising supplement.

Gray, who is rapidly spreading the “Newspaper Next” philosophy throughout the industry, says that the project sponsored about 20 workshops in the first two months of 2007.

“In my view, the need to know what’s important hasn’t lessened,” Gray says. What has changed, he adds, is the way one “manages” his or her life to get that information.

Marvin Kalb, the former director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy says such narrowly tailored news niches can be an element of a newspaper, but not their core mission. “Newspapers have had that part of personal bonding as a function for decades,” he notes. “That was always a small part of the paper, never meant to be the central purpose … The editor of the paper must understand that his principal function is to report the news.”

Schaffer thinks projects like “Newspaper Next” are tapping into the next big business frontier. “Very clever and useful niche, specialty products [are] where the greatest opportunities for new revenues and new eyeballs lay,” she says.

Societal Implications

In 1997, this writer authored a Boston Globe magazine article peering a decade into the future. The headline was “It’s 2007. Do you know where your news is?”

The consensus among experts back then was that newspapers were headed for major problems, if not obsolescence. Newspapers will have to “reinvent themselves into something new,” says Paul Saffo of the California-based Institute for the Future. And it “will be a very painful experience.”

The pain is here. The reinvention is a work in progress. The best case scenario might ultimately be a wide variety of news options—from international to hyperlocal—that break down geographic and geopolitical barriers while fostering citizen-to-citizen communication.

The worst case scenario could be a fragmenting, narrowing media culture that leads to a fragmented, narrower society. Some years back, then Wichita Eagle editor Buzz Merritt created this cautionary futuristic tale about “Harold the Rutabaga Man” and his computer. It’s still worth thinking about.

“Rutabagas are his thing. He thinks of little else,” wrote Merritt. “Indulging his passion requires but a keystroke or two and a few electronic impulses. Insulated from all but the knowledge he deliberately summons, Harold is content, and increasingly arrogant, in his expertise. Trouble is, Harold can vote. Wouldn’t, of course, but could.”

—Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Washington-based research center, the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Most of his journalism career, which began in 1979, was devoted to covering the news media. He spent 10 years at the Boston Globe as an ombudsman and media writer.

I am a dinosaur.

I’m only 45 years old, my hair is not too gray (yet). But I’ve spent half of those years as a newspaperman. It’s an old-fashioned moniker now, isn’t it? Newspaperman. It conjures up images of school boys shouting “Extra!” and Clark Gable characters demanding, “Baby, get me rewrite.” I love the romance of all that.

But I must be a dinosaur for thinking that way. Because everywhere I turn I see the stories, I hear the talk, I listen to the experts—they all lament that newspapers are a dying industry. Even that respected magazine, The Economist, has asked the question: “Who Killed the Newspaper?” Well, allow me to quote another British export that influences our culture, Monty Python: “We’re not dead yet.”

Half of all Americans read newspapers. Newspapers make their owners tons of money—twice the profit margins of the average Fortune 500 corporation. And they continue to help set the rest of the news media’s daily agenda.

But, more importantly, the American newspaper will not die because there is nothing that can replace it. It may change in appearance—but newspapers have evolved for as long as they have existed. It may be delivered primarily over the Internet. But it will still be newspaper journalism, the values of newspaper journalism, that will guide the content.

Former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Jack Fuller said it best not long ago: “The most dreadful loss to society if papers were to vanish tomorrow would be that the flow of basic, gritty daily information about what is happening would decline to a trickle. This information provides the foundation of democracy.”

Think for a moment—no other institution has the resources, the staff, the motivation to monitor county commissions and school boards and mayors. No one else reads the police blotters or sits in courtrooms. Someone in society has to check on all that stuff to make sure it is efficient and fair and available for the rest of us.

TV news won’t cover a story without pictures. Most radio stations no longer have news departments. What about Yahoo!? Last I heard, it had one reporter—to cover the world.

You who rely on Google or other portals may say, hey, we can rely on the Associated Press for that. What do we really need newspapers for? Well, newspapers pay the freight. AP could not exist without the newspapers that pay for it and not even a company as rich as Google could afford to pay for AP’s worldwide newsgathering all by itself.

That’s the economic reality. But there’s something else that is important about newspapers—their values and standards in gathering the news.

The Internet and blogging have created a new hothouse for gossip and innuendo. We saw it in the past presidential campaign and it will be worse in 2008. The mainstream media must grapple with that reality. It will filter through the charges and lies and half-truths to determine the best objective version of reality. Can anyone here today really believe that that is the mission of the bloggers and talk radio?

This young dinosaur thinks we ought to make newspapers better, not give up on them. We can’t afford to do that. Our future as a free people demands it.

—Daniel LeDuc (ND ’83), Deputy National Editor, Washington Post. Excerpted from a speech to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Oct. 18, 2006.

 

If you have an hour a day, how do you stay informed?

Fr. John Jenkins, CSC (ND ’78, ND ’76)
President, University of Notre Dame

I look at the South Bend Tribune and New York Times daily, not reading them cover to cover, but skimming and reading what seems important.

I subscribe to several services that give news stories relevant to higher education.

I record News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, and try to watch at least part of it each night.

I am also fortunate to meet prominent people in education, business, politics, the Church, and other areas, and I try to use conversations to learn about their area of expertise or experience. I generally find these conversations the most informative source of information and insight about important events and trends.

 

Sarah Childress (ND ’03)
Reporter, Newsweek

National Public Radio in the morning. I listen while getting ready for work. It’s a good overview of international and national news, with original content.

Slate.com ‘Today’s Papers’—This site offers a smart rundown of the major papers’ coverage.

CNN Headline News—to check for breaking news.

IraqSlogger—An exhaustive collection of Iraq news.

Also, I check the four major dailies online: The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

 

Bill McGurn (ND ’80)
Assistant to the President for Speechwriting

I am afraid I enjoy an unfair advantage these days: Every morning at 7:30 a.m., I am greeted with something called the White House News Summary. This is a stapled bundle of 100 pages or so of major articles and reports from newspapers, television, radio and, occasionally, the Web.  

Hard as it is for an old newspaper man, I have to confess that I have largely abandoned newsprint—even while increasing the number of papers I read online, including:

The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Washington Times, the Politico, New York Sun, and New York Times. True, there’s still nothing I like more than to spread out on the kitchen table on a Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and the morning paper. But the Internet gives me instant access to all these usual suspects, plus

others that would be hard to get otherwise: such as The Standard in Hong Kong, where I lived for nearly 10 years ... the Madison Eagle in my hometown of New Jersey ... and The Observer and Rover on this campus, which allows me to keep abreast of campus controversies.

 

Don Wycliff (ND ’69)
Associate Vice President, News & Information, University of Notre Dame

First, I would read the New York Times. Despite its shortcomings, the Times is the single best general interest newspaper—nay, best single news source—available. If I had any time left over after reading the Times, I would do a quick scan of the Web sites of the Washington Post and my local newspaper. Obviously, I remain a newspaper reader, despite the advent of other media. If I still had some time left,

I would go to Jim Romenesko’s Web site at the Poynter Institute—to read the news about the news, including any controversies about bias or other failings of the mainstream news industry.

Finally, even though it technically would be cheating, I’d use an hour of my evening recreation time to watch the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. It’s the best single TV news program in existence.

 

 

 
 
© 2007 University of Notre Dame
Last Updated: October 23, 2007