Archive for the ‘Newspapers’ Category
I just read my Sunday Birmingham News, the last remnant of the newspaper I grew up with. The one where I spent the first decade of my career. The one where I learned to write. Advance Publications, which owns the newspaper, also publishes print editions on Wednesday and Friday, but I dropped all but Sunday a while back.
In retrospect, it’s all about habits. Let me explain.
Advance’s logic was sound as far as it went. Keep producing the news daily, but only print it three days a week. Save megabucks on newsprint, ink, trucks, pressmen and such. For a while, I thought the industry would follow their lead, because Advance has a strong history of success.
The problem is that you don’t take a seven-day-a-week habit and break it up — getting the news three days in the driveway and four days a week on the computer or tablet. A lot of people just aren’t wired that way, and from a reader perspective, it makes no sense.
I quickly found that my tablet brought me the news very nicely. It was never wet, and I didn’t get ink on my hands. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays — the three days the physical paper came — it became an inconvenience. My habits had been formed in a different direction. Now I’ve cut back all but Sunday, and it’s hanging by a thread.
It now looks to me like we know the right direction for the newspaper industry. Newspapers that have begun charging readers for the news are stabilizing. We don’t know how the Advance papers are doing, because they’re privately owned and don’t have to publish financial data. The Advance way (primarily relying on cost cuts an online advertising growth) may or may not be working. But the path of charging for the news apparently is turning out to be successful.
Pew’s annual State of the Media report came out a few days ago, and they found that digital pay plans (aka paywalls) are being adopted at 450 of the country’s 1,380 dailies. Along with the return of some classified advertising and an improving economy in general, paywalls seem to be producing good results. Savvy investors — notably Warren Buffett — are buying newspapers. It’s true that they’re getting them on the bargain counter, but they see opportunity on both the digital and the print side of the business.
The New York Times rolled out a plan last spring that allowed visitors a limited number of stories per month, after which they had to pay. There were a lot of holes in their paywall by design, but now they’ve tightened it up. The Washington Post and San Francisco Examiner have also announced paywalls. Other papers charging for online news include most of the Gannett papers, Lee’s 47 papers, McClatchy’s 30 and E.W. Scripps’ 14.
And why not? If you hired reporters and paid them to do the hard work of interviewing sources, sitting through meetings, going through files and writing stories, wouldn’t you think it was reasonable to be paid for their work? If publishers can’t make enough money to pay the journalists, they’ll have to keep letting them go. There’s still plenty of that happening. Pew estimates that 1,000 newsroom jobs have disappeared each of the last two years, and newsroom employment is down 30% since 2013.
For years, we were in the habit of reading our local paper, and paying for it — although at a price heavily subsidized by advertising. As news began to appear on the Internet, we all expected that online advertising to cover the cost of unlimited online news. For a lot of reasons — not all of which are clear — that hasn’t happened. So now we have to break the habit of having unlimited news from unlimited outlets. Many of us will have to pay a bit, especially for local news. That seems like a reasonable habit to me.
I grew up reading The Birmingham News as a kid, I began my career there. I worked side by side with people I had previously known only as bylines — Clarke Stallworth, Peggy Roberson, Al Fox, Clyde Bolton and many others. I was in heaven. To this day it is the most satisfying job I ever had. I was always proud of the product we created, and the work I did.
On Oct. 1, Advance Publications (aka Newhouse) implemented its much-discussed plan to put most of its news on its web site (AL.com) and publish a print newspaper only three days a week. I knew it was coming, because they had implemented a similar program in Michigan. Now, I get a paper only on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. (The Mobile Press-Register, Huntsville Times and New Orleans Times-Picayune have implemented the same schedule.)
So now, I read the local news on my tablet four days a week — sometimes using the Al.com app, sometimes visiting the site, but usually on an RSS reader.
The “digital first” strategy reflects one of the two current approaches to the newspapers’ struggle to survive. It’s well known — and even trite to say it now — that by giving away the news all these years on the Internet, the print media have lost their ability to sell it. So how do you get this toothpaste back into the tube?
The first approach is to start charging for it again. There are dozens of wrinkles to this, and some appear to be working. The New York Times allows readers to read a certain number of pages before asking for a monthly subscription. Some papers now restrict online news to those who subscribe to the paper product. Others are trying a metered “pay by the article” approach. A few (notably the Wall Street Journal) never did give it all away, and they seem to be more stable.
The second approach is to bank on growth in online advertising, either with or without paid subscriptions to a print product. Alabama Media Group is going this route — continuing to charge for the print newspaper three days a week and relying on print and online advertising to grow and become the revenue streams for the future.
So now I’m going to shift from my reasonably objective summary of the landscape and offer a reader’s assessment of how it’s going so far. I can’t say how it’s working financially; Newhouse is privately held, and notoriously secretive. About all we know is that they’ve been one of the richest and most successful publishers for decades.
My observations apply only to The Birmingham News, because that’s the only print newspaper I’m receiving, but by all indications, they are approaching things in the same way in all four cities.
Online content. Advance rushed things. After a disastrous experiment with some sort of canary yellow, they quickly subdued the colors on the site, and now the Al.com and Nola.com sites are more of a blog style. If you use an ad blocking extension in some browsers (including Chrome), the AL.com logo and search bar disappear. The mobile version seems easy enough to use, at least on my Android. But if you’re one of those folks who prefer to use the desktop setting on a full-size tablet, the dropdown menus are hard to use. Of course, they’d rather steer you to the app anyway, which better enables them to deliver ads. But that strategy backfires, because a lot of us don’t like loading our devices with dozens of news apps, so we use an RSS reader like Flipboard or Google Reader. That’s not good for the publisher, because ad delivery options are more limited when the content is being delivered through somebody else’s app.
Print Newspaper. On the three “print” days, I had hoped that the Alabama Media Group would take on more challenging projects, such as backgrounders and investigative work. Instead, we seem to be getting more soft features with little immediacy. There seems to be more local news, but most of it seems to be stuff that just comes out of routine city council meetings. Nobody seems to be putting a lot of work into the local coverage — undoubtedly because the staff cuts have limited resources for this. Staffs of the three Alabama newspapers have been combined, with a few others hired just for digital writing. A reporter in Mobile simply isn’t going to write stories that are have much appeal in Huntsville. I still hope they will eventually remember that their only real product is local news.
Sadly, I’ve seen little evidence of that. What I get next to my bowl of cereal in the morning is a forgettable hodgepodge consisting of some that’s old and much that’s irrelevant.
But it’s early. We’ll see where it goes.
The shorter the news cycle, the more vulnerable it is to rumors, lies, manipulations and inconsequential trivia. A lot of stuff that seems important in the “urgency of the moment” is found to be either wrong or irrelevant by the end of the hour, the end of the day, or the end of the week. Facts get checked, and everyone has a chance to see what a given bit of news really amounts to. At the end of the week, we invariably see that many of the minute-by-minute ripples were just that. The trees fall away, and we finally see the forest.
Our constant monitoring of cable news and Internet news sites results in our “knowing” far too much that is later found to be wrong or beside the point.
It isn’t just about the paper. It isn’t even about the individuals who, after decades of loyal work at the highest levels, now find themselves unwelcome in the newsrooms they ran for so many years.
It’s about the death of a proven process that brought us news we never would have known about otherwise. About getting answers to questions we didn’t know to ask. About weeding out the trivial, the self-serving, and the unverifiable.
For years, news naturally separated itself into various cycles that were rooted in physical realities. The sun goes down, and the newsmakers go home. The daily newspaper deadline comes and goes. We all know more or less when these things occur, and we plan around them. Newspapers evolved a very effective system of evaluating what needed to be covered on a given day, assigning reporters to go to meetings, make phone calls, knock on doors and check facts. As the deadline neared, reporters would turn in their stories, and good editors would ask hard questions. Who is this guy? What’s his motive? Who pays his salary? How do we know this is true? How can we verify he’s not lying to us? Where necessary, reporters would plug the holes, fix the stories, delete the trivia and resubmit a version that met the editor’s standards.
It wasn’t a perfect process, but it worked.
There were weekly and monthly news cycles as well, governed by weekend lulls and monthly magazine cycles. They provided even more perspective, because what seems like the most important thing in the world on Tuesday morning often turns out to be irrelevant by Thursday afternoon. Often, it gets “trumped” by something more important, or proven false.
I recognized the wisdom of these natural cycles when I was covering all-day events such as trials or conventions. At first, I naively thought I could just “write up” what happened as the day went along, put a “lede” on it at the end of the day and go get a beer. It never worked out that way, because covering news isn’t just about gathering quotes and dumping them out there for the world. It’s about understanding, making decisions, and writing stories that give us an accurate, fair account of what happened — usually in less than 1,000 words.
In all of this, the physical limitations of the paper product provided an important filter. With a limited “news hole,” editors had to make tough decisions about what was “news.” Now, with unlimited air time and Internet capacity, Lindsay Lohan’s latest car accident can carry as much weight as the historic decisions being made in Congress as part of the new Farm Bill. One’s about a mediocre actress who’s a junkie. One’s about our nation’s food supply. I mean, really!
We still don’t know much about how things will work in the future, but several trends are clear. Less thought will go into what gets covered, and how. There will be far fewer editors reading copy. Reporters will be expected to take videos, shoot pictures, “live tweet” their stories and format their own stories. There’s simply no way a reporter can wear so many hats and still pay full attention to the primary task of gathering and writing the news.
Our focus has been on the correcting of typos and grammar, but the greater loss is the role an experienced editor plays in making sure the reporter understands what he’s writing about.
Because that’s the only way we as consumers of news will ever know what the hell our politicians, business leaders and others are up to.
For years, we’ve complained about the press’s power to filter and prioritize news. But now that it’s gone, we’ll miss it.
At best, it’s never easy to discern the real strategies behind publicly discernible moves and the language used in corporate announcements. I know, because I write corporate announcements, and I’d be lying if I denied that there are times when obfuscation is a primary objective.
All the same, the Orwellian language used by Advance Publications (aka Newhouse) makes one thing clear: The newspapers are giving up their all-important role as a filter to help us get the stuff that matters while leaving out the trivial and unconfirmed.
To be sure, this filtering role has been a favorite whipping boy in the industry for more than two centuries. Those who feel that their priorities aren’t reflected in the mainstream media point out that newspapers have always exerted influence in the stories they choose to cover, what goes on page 1, what photos are used, and even what goes “below the fold” (on the bottom half of the page). Such criticism has always had some validity. At the same time, assuming our journalists acted with integrity and used good judgment, they saved us a great deal of time. And in many cases, they forced us to look at matters that we, as citizens, needed to focus on. Things we wouldn’t necessarily seek out on our own.
Now, much of that function is disappearing. Reporters won’t be expected to use their judgment as to what matters, who’s lying, or what’s unconfirmed. They’re asked to snatch up stuff as it floats by, package it for the web site, tweet it, and move on to something else. Increasingly, all over the country, we have reporters “live tweeting” meetings, press conferences, trials and other news events rather than listening, thinking and understanding.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t tweet and listen at the same time. I can pretend to, but I can’t really. And if you don’t believe me, ask my wife, who reminds me of this daily.
The announcements over the past few days in Louisiana and Alabama may be dominating the conversation at the moment, but these trends began long before Newhouse dropped the bombshells on the Times Picayune, Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register.
In the Gambit, a New Orleans web site, Kevin Allman describes staff meetings in which editor Jim Amoss said that “ the reporters/content providers have been told to gather information and post it online as it comes in, rather than filing traditional long-form stories. They will be providing updates throughout the day on NOLA.com and other platforms such as Twitter, and expected to take photos and video as circumstances warrant to augment the content they file online.”
The Gambit notes that under a new policy implemented several week ago, Times-Picayune reporters “had to post something for NOLA.com as part of their early morning duties…. These postings could take the form of a brief story, a short blog item or even a bit of listings news.”
By multiple accounts, reporters are now getting and being evaluated by “hit counts” on their stories. In The Atlantic, former longtime Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid says, “Advance’s Internet strategy has never been about journalism or news. It’s about clicks.”
For quite a while, I’ve been criticizing the endless flow of trivia and misinformation on the cable networks. But through all that, the newspapers have remained a critical place where we could have confidence that the facts have been properly verified and some perspective has been applied through the process in which editors read the copy, ask top questions and decide “how much play” to give a story. In the future, the pressure to keep “new content” going up constantly on the web sites will guarantee that we value the immediate over the important.
You may have heard yesterday about the decision by Advance Communications to stop printing three of Alabama’s newspapers daily. Instead, The Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register will print on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Their primary vehicle for delivering the news will be AL.com, Advance’s web site combining its Alabama media. Advance will also cut print publication of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to three times a week, with most news going to NOLA.com.
These cuts were more personal to me than previous ones. I spent the first 10 years of my career with The Birmingham News, and many of the reporters and editors there are friends.
You may be aware that these changes follow the pattern of Advance/Newhouse’s changes in Michigan in 2009, which include ceasing print entirely in Ann Arbor and moving the Flint Journal, Bay City Times and Saginaw News to a mostly-online model with print editions just three days a week.
It’s important to note that Advance, which is owned by the Newhouse family, is the richest and most stable media organization in the country. I expect them to be a bellwether.
To complicate this further, a number of papers are continuing to print daily editions for newsstand distribution only, but ceasing to deliver them to homes.
The pain is just starting. The Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California predicts that within five years, only four papers will still be printing daily: The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
I expect this trend to accelerate from here for three reasons:
1. By following its Michigan model in Alabama and Louisiana, Advance is telegraphing to other publishers that its strategy is working. That will lead others to follow Advance’s example.
2. A number of newspapers are in various stages of bankruptcy. Notably, Tribune Co. — owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, WGN in in Chicago, among others — is hoping to learn in June whether it can emerge from Chapter 11. These are shedding the debt from their print operations, and while most will continue to print (at least some of the time), they will introduce wrinkles that continue to de-emphasize print in favor of digital. Some will print only a few days a week. Others will print but eliminate home delivery, severely reducing the audience for print ads.
3. Newspapers are losing $27 in print advertising for every $1 they gain in digital. Up until now, the print revenues have dwarfed online revenues, so they’ve been milking the cash cow for several years. Now, that cow is pretty dry, and they’re facing the reality that the costs are on the print side. They’re not going to keep the costs without the revenues.
Here’s a list of metropolitan dailies that have failed since 2007, according to the web site, NewspaperDeathWatch.com:
Rocky Mountain News
King County Journal
Union City Register-Tribune
Halifax Daily News
South Idaho Press
San Juan Star
While 69 percent of Americans say that it wouldn’t have a major impact on their lives if their local newspaper no longer existed, the truth is that in actual practice, we actually rely on the local paper for more than we realize.
The table below summarizes findings from the Pew Research Center. You can see the data here.
|Type of News||How we prefer to get it|
|Community events, crime, taxes, local government, arts/culture, social services, zoning, development||Primary local newspapers, with TV as a secondary source for local politics.|
|Housing, schools, jobs||Newspapers & Internet (tie)|
|Local political news||Newspapers & TV (tie)|
|Weather, breaking news||TV|
|Traffic||TV & radio (tie)|
|Restaurants & other local businesses||Internet|
When I changed the name of my public relations agency to NewMediaRules a few years ago, I was convinced that the media landscape was changing in ways that would require professionals to constantly adapt. But the changes I’ve seen in the last five years have exceeded anything I could have anticipated or predicted.
Now and then, you get one just right.
What I didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of predicting the direction of these changes. With the decline of newspapers and television and the growing role of digital media, the direction seemed pretty well set. For one thing, it seemed perfectly clear that the sharp cutbacks on local news staffs would translate into few opportunities for local news coverage. For a while, that seemed to be the case. But now, the opposite is true. Oops.
To give myself the benefit of the doubt, opportunities for local coverage did decline — for a while. But several major factors — including the growth and credibility of hyperlocal media, the resurrection of RSS technology and the explosion of tablet computers — have changed all that. In fact, while I expected to simply track the continuing trend that started five or six years ago, I’ve found myself feasting on new opportunities for my clients.
I’ll confess, it caught me by surprise. A change this big has happened only three or four times in my career, but I think the most recent changes are the most dramatic.
I try to keep NewMediaRules.net posts as useful as I can, but this is one of those cases when I have to hold back to protect my own competitive advantage as well as that of my clients. Suffice it to say that things began to turn on their head around mid 2011, and as new data became available, I spotted a trend that my colleagues seem to have missed so far.
With a couple of simple changes in the way I approach the writing, distribution and promotion of press releases, I’ve been able to gain more local and trade media coverage for my clients — especially auction companies — in the first four months of 2012 than I’ve ever seen in a similar time period. Yet, it’s working in an environment where there are fewer reporters, with less space for their stories, than ever.
This is good for everybody. Clients who are competing for business can say, in all candor, that competitors can’t match the effectiveness of the public relations element our campaigns.
I realize that by not giving the secret to these results, I risk sounding like a huckster on a 2 a.m. infomercial, but sometimes it just turns out that way. Don’t worry, though. I’m not peddling books or CDs.
Here’s the best advice I can offer without giving away the goods: Stay flexible. Don’t get too attached to one way of doing things, or to one view of how things are supposed to be working. The only reliable prediction is that the rules will keep right on changing.
I was working at The Birmingham News when we converted from the old presses
(which dated back to before World War II) to a shiny new Goss Metroliner offset. They had to dig down so far I thought I saw they’d hit China, and the hole took up a big chunk of a city block.
If the Annenberg School’s forecast is right and nearly all print newspapers will be gone in five years, I guess there’s not much point in having those enormous buildings that house them. You can put all the reporters you can use on a single floor of nearly any decent sized office tower.
So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that newspapers are selling their buildings at a nice clip (and in a few cases, at some nice prices).
Most print newspapers will disappear in five years. Social media is the future of communication, but more than half of us don’t believe what we read there. Meanwhile, privacy is a lost cause, and we’re paying a high personal price for being connected.
That’s the stark picture painted in a new report by USC’s Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism, which has been studying our digital future for 10 years. While we have virtually unlimited access to information and ability to connect with others, this is creating “extraordinary demands on our time, major concerns about privacy and vital questions about the proliferation of technology,” said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Center for a Digital Future.
Here are the findings that jumped out at me. You can read a full summary here.
Tablets will become our primary tool for personal computing, and it’s happening faster than you think. Annenberg says that over the next three years, the desktop PC will dwindle to only 4-6 percent of computer users, and even laptop use will decline.
You can’t leave the office behind. The study found that there is a greater expectation that we will be at the beck and call of our offices and customers 24/7.
Most print newspapers will be gone in five years. Only the biggest and smallest will survive. Cole predicts that only four major daily newspapers will continue in print form: The New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Ironically, local weeklies may survive.
Privacy? Forget about it. “The issue of privacy is simple – if you go online for anything at all, your privacy is gone,” said Cole. “Americans love that they can buy online, look for information online, and join social communities online. But the price we pay is that we are monitored constantly; private organizations know everything there is to know about us: our interests, our buying preferences, our behavior, and our beliefs.”
The Internet is growing as a political force, but its impact remains fuzzy. The Internet helps us understand politics better, and it helps politicians get their message to us. On the other hand, only 33 percent of us think it’s safe to voice our political views online.