What ails the newspaper industry?

Image courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com
Image courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Recently read several articles pondering what is going on in the collapse of newspaper revenue and the collapse in circulation. One is a lamentation over the loss of life-long career opportunities. Another describes doubling down as strategy to survive. Finally, a different idea on what might be driving the collapse in circulation.

3/2 – The Nation – These Journalists Dedicated that Their Lives to Telling Other People’s Stories. What Happens When No One Wants to Print Their Words Anymore? A heartsick lament that bemoans the drop from 55,000 full-time journalists in 2007 to 32,900 in 2,015. That drop of 22,000 doesn’t include big layoffs in 2016.

The shrinkage will likely continue – A J-school prof at USC thinks if trends continue for the next three years like the last three, there could be somewhere between one-third and one-half of the 50 largest papers disappear.

One former photographer lamented the reduced number of reporters has resulted in a drop of attention paid to politicians and businessmen. Implication is that they can get away with more because no one is checking up on them. See last article in this post for description of how that ‘checking up’ actually works.

For broader background on what is going on lately in the newspaper industry, consider:

3/29 – Bloomberg Business – Newspapers Gobble Each Other Up to Survive Digital Apocalypse – Volume of deals for one newspaper to buy others has been growing for at least the last three years. In 2015 there were 70 newspapers acquired. The model is for newspapers to buy other newspapers and then consolidate operations to reduce costs.

For example, one holding company owns six newspapers in the Bay Area. They plan to merge the six papers into two. They will cut 20% of their current staff. The plan is to increase local advertising at the same time as they cut local coverage.

Ponder whether you think this is a winning strategy: one observer has said newspapers are going to try making money by shrinking the product with less local coverage and charging more for what they provide.

Hmm. Providing less and charging more. I’m not sure, but I am willing to make a guess that won’t work out as well as they expect.

Long-term revenue trend –

Here’s a snapshot to illustrate how far advertising revenue has collapsed:

  • $50 billion – advertising revenue in 2000
  • $12 billion – advertising this year (presumably a forecast for 2016, but might be actual for 2015)

That is a 76% drop in ad sales in 15 or 16 years. Three-quarters drop in a decade and a half.

Is it just the loss of ad revenue? Is there something else behind the loss of circulation, the drop in people willing to pay for a paper?

3/6 – Newsbusters – “Journalists” Deserve Most of the Blame for Newsroom Shrinkage – Author’s perspective is that for decades when reporters and editors had the opportunity to actually report the news and give the public the basic information they wanted and needed, they instead were acting as agenda-driven partisans.

Buried far deep in one of the last paragraphs of The Nation’s article is a reference to the “so-called recovery.” The comment points out that almost half the people looking for work over 55 years of age have been looking for more than six months. That over-six-month cutoff means there is an exquisitely high probability that the overwhelming majority of those people will never return to the workforce. They are retired.

I spend a fair amount of time reading and do not recall seeing that statistic pointed out.

Why is that devastating loss of experience and skills not in a bunch of headlines? Why is the forced early retirement (probably by a decade or so) of a huge swath of workers not the subject of regular editorials?

Author of the lamentation mentioned earlier misses the point that journalists should have been calling attention to the weak recovery for the last, oh, say, six years. Instead the usual headlines have been of what a wonderful economic recovery we are experiencing.

I am fully aware of the weak recovery for two reasons. First, I actually read economic statistics and have several spreadsheets to keep track of the ones I’m most interested in (yeah, yeah, I know – please pray for me). Second, I get the majority of my news from new media.

This article points out the “watching them” routine in political reporting actually consists of reporters talking to politicians in private and promising to stay off the record, never revealing who said what and who actually believes what. That means most political news out of DC is based on an undisclosed person’s hidden agenda.

Don’t act like this is a new development. I went to high school and college in the Maryland suburbs of DC. I have known since I was in college most news in The Washington Post was based on someone with an agenda talking to a reporter, who would protect the source as payment for the juicy news.

The “speaking truth to power” in journalism for at least 30 years (if not decades longer) has been speaking your source’s truth against his opponent’s power.

I have known for most of my adult life that is the way journalism operates. The author suggests (and I agree) that a large and growing portion of the population is finally catching on. I suggest the result of that enlightenment is collapsing circulation. When the eyeballs leave, maybe the advertisers chase them.

Maybe, just maybe, lots of people are catching on to what I learned while I was in college.

Perhaps there are deeper reasons why so many people have moved to alternative sources of news. Perhaps for journalists it isn’t a case of nobody wants to print their words but instead maybe no consumers want to read their words.

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