Thursday, October 22, 2009

Breaking News

The dire situation facing newspapers in America these days is every bit as severe as the unemployment problem.

In many ways, it is worse, I think, because a free press is so important in a democracy. Without it, I see no way for a free nation to remain free because there is no one to fill the watchdog role that literally keeps an eye on what elected officials do — or do not do.

Newspapers have been tumbling like dominoes in the last year or two, and, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, that should be a cause of concern for all of us.

A friend of mine sent me an e–mail this week. He observed that the New York Times Co. has decided not to sell the Boston Globe because its financial prospects had "significantly improved."

My friend concluded that this was a sign that the economy is getting better. From a business perspective, I suppose that isn't an unreasonable conclusion.

Unfortunately, his e–mail arrived in my inbox the same day that reports were circulating that the New York Times plans to eliminate 100 newsroom jobs by the end of the year.

So what is one to make of this?

I've heard many theories about the decline of newspapers. As someone who studied journalism in college and worked for newspapers for many years, I suppose I am naturally drawn to this subject. I have written about it in the past, in part to help me understand what is happening, and I see a certain amount of logic in each point that is raised.

I've heard it said, for example, that newspapers are struggling because the quality of writing has fallen. In turn, that has led to a drop in paid circulation.

There's no doubt in my mind that there is a relationship between writing that is weaker (or perceived to be weaker) than it used to be and decreased demand for the product.

But the thing that newspaper people understand that people outside the industry do not is that a drop in paid circulation is like a symptom of a disease. The disease that is killing daily newspapers is the decline in advertising revenue.

It never has been possible to pay all the expenses involved in running a daily newspaper with the revenue of a product that sells for 25¢ or 50¢ a copy. Even if a newspaper could sell its product at the Sunday rate seven days a week, it wouldn't be possible.

But the income from advertising is a different story. When advertising dollars begin to dry up, that's when the writing is on the wall for a newspaper, no matter how good (or bad) its writing is.

I was reminded of this today when I read the latest installment at a blog called The Arkansas Newspaper War. It is devoted to a topic with which I am familiar — the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat that raged when I worked for the Gazette in the 1980s.

Today, the blog gives grades to the different departments at the Gazette, and the one in which I worked — news — gets an A+. If any of my former Gazette colleagues read this blog — and I know that at least one does — I'm sure that is a source of pride for them, as it is for me.

But then the author of the blog makes an important observation: "The Gazette ... was both weak and strong. Unfortunately, her weakness was in an area vital to success. If the well of ad dollars dries up, a daily newspaper cannot survive."

As the crisis in the newspaper industry has worsened, I've seen and heard a lot of talk about the rise of citizen journalists and internet news coverage taking their toll on daily newspapers. But, like declining paid circulation, they are only symptoms of a much larger problem for daily newspapers.

The real problem is the loss of advertising revenue. Unless newspapers can find someone with really deep pockets to pick up the slack — and it is worth noting that, in its final years, the Gazette's ownership, the Gannett Co., had pretty deep pockets — they cannot continue to exist.

And that is the kind of news that breaks a journalist's heart.

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