By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

More troubles for newspapers

The ongoing good news/bad news paradigm in which the newspaper business finds itself continues. According to the trade publication Editor & Publisher, advertising revenue dropped by the largest proportion in 50 years from 2006 to 2007 — and online revenue gains, though still impressive, are beginning to slow.

So where’s the good news? Readership isn’t really declining when you add print and online together. I must admit, though, that the utter lack of ideas on how to pay for the journalism that the public continues to seek is starting to put me in a pessimistic frame of mind.

And it’s not that newspapers as we know them — either in print or online — have to thrive in order for journalism to survive. But though I see plenty of projects that do some of the things that newspapers do, none comes close to being a replacement.

I know that better days are ahead, but right now it’s discouraging. I just hope the latest news is more recession-driven than it is a sign that we’re heading over the cliff.

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  1. Robin Edgar

    I could be mistaken, but I have been given the impression that one of the biggest advertising revenue losses for newspapers is due to the proliferation of free classified ad services such as Craig’s List has seriously reduced the number of classified ads bought in newspapers. It seems that newspapers will have to come up with new financing options to replace that pretty much permanently lost source of revenue.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Robin: You are not mistaken.

  3. John Farrell

    Here’s an idea. Get the Globe to hire underpaid, overworked authors like me to write for a fraction of their current columnists. I get the exposure to help sell books, they get writers for less.:)

  4. Robin Edgar

    I know. I was just being suitably humble. 😉

  5. acf

    Regarding the position that the growth in online readership more than offsets the loss in print copy readership, I wonder what the source of those readers is. I assume that print copy readership is overwhelmingly drawn from the population that the print paper was originally created to inform. On the other hand, I don’t know the distribution of readers of the online edition. Are they merely the transfer of print readers to online readers, or are the the result of tapping into a new market, outside the original market area of the paper, geographically?As a local, longtime, subscriber to the print edition of the Boston Globe, and also a frequent online reader of the Globe, as well as many other far flung online ‘papers’, I feel qualified to participate in this discussion. For me to continue reading, the paper has to ramp up the intelligence quotient of the Globe, and stop dumbing it down, or “Metroizing’ it, trying to make it more ‘exciting’, for eyes barely interested in what is going on. I want serious news to be presented thoroughly, in an in depth fashion. I am not interested in a full page of some flighty fashion trend, or the latest in Britney Spears’ or Paris Hilton’s tortured lives. I am not interested in having the sports written with an eye to the cutest headline, or the sliest alliteration. I don’t need to be entertained by the paper, I want to be informed.

  6. Anonymous

    I blame the leadership of newspapers and they poor decisions they continue to make.They decide the money’s in hyper-local coverage, then they cut staff. Uh, the wire services aren’t going to cover sewer committee meetings.They unleash a flurry of blogs, but most blogs serve as personal diaries for the writers and are boring if you’re not related to the writer. And if I visit a food blog, there’s an ad for Lufthansa. If I visit the beer blog, there’s an ad for Lufthansa. If I visit the animals blog, there’s an ad for Lufthansa. How about trying to get relevant ads on each blog?The newspapers, especially the local rags, are rife with stagnation and people who are scared to take risks because they don’t want to lose their jobs. So they continue to use the model that worked in 1600s-1990s and blame the Internet and craigslist and monster for stealing their business.

  7. O-FISH-L

    I think the theory that “craigslist is destroying newspapers” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and a convenient cover for a myriad of other problems.To focus on craigslist though, if we’re convinced that the newspaper classifieds aren’t coming back, fine. Rather than throw in the towel altogether, why not make it affordable and effective for the small businessman to purchase display ads? There is a huge, untapped array of potential advertisers smaller than Herb Chambers but larger than the corner yard sale. For too long, those potential advertisers have been ignored. When newspaper execs put down the Kleenex and get over craigslist, they might be able to stabilize things. That and a bit of effort to at least appear politically neutral will go a long Dan: John Henning looked awfully comfortable in your seat tonight.

  8. Robin Edgar

    :To focus on craigslist though, if we’re convinced that the newspaper classifieds aren’t coming back, fine. Rather than throw in the towel altogether, why not make it affordable and effective for the small businessman to purchase display ads? That’s why I said – It seems that newspapers will have to come up with new financing options to replace that pretty much permanently lost source of revenue. There should be a variety of ways that newspapers can generate new revenue including those you suggested o-fish-l.

  9. Anonymous

    I Love it!The Liberal newspapers are dying.

  10. Anonymous

    Two large Supermarket chains stopped distributing their flyers with the local paper. That says alot about circulation. I’ve also noticed that coupons are now coming in the mail, and not in the Sunday paper.

  11. dlhalper

    Regarding the silly comment “anonymous” #1 made, both liberal and conservative newspapers are having problems. Will you love it when you can’t get access to print journalism any more?

  12. Harry

    dlhalper:First, newspapers and journalism are a business. It is not some kind of priesthood or a legion of selfless public servants. It’s a business. Get over it.I believe that the haughty self-righteousness of many journalists, (who behave as if they are in a profession to “serve the greater good” as they see it, rather than report news) explains why the press is held in low esteem by the public. Second, you ask:“Will you love it when you can’t get access to print journalism any more?”Print is nothing more than one medium for content delivery. There is no law of the universe that says journalism has to be printed and delivered daily to my home by illegal immigrant independent contractors. That is a product strategy, and one that right now is clearly failing.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    As a small businesss owner, I huzzah the realization that a single display miniscule ad in the paper costs as much a large display ad in a telephone book that lasts for a year, not a day. Pricing is antique.A factoid about legal advertising – the stalled Municipal Reform bill will allow towns to post bid notices and legal ads on town web sites instead of requiring publication. If this passes, the only thing the papers can count on is paid obituaries.

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Harry: You’re right, but you’re wrong. First, let’s quickly dispense with what you’re telling Donna Halper. I am certain that by “print journalism,” she is not restricting her view to dead trees. She means newspapers, print or online.Now, then. Though newspaper owners certainly have no God-given right to make large profits, we do have an unusual dilemma. The public is clamoring for what newspapers give them. Properly done, journalism is necessary to democracy. And the economic basis for this popular service is disintegrating.So many of the anti-newspaper arguments I see are based on the notion, stated either explicitly or implictly, that the public is turning away from newspapers. That is demonstrably not true. Advertisers are turning away from newspapers. Solutions are needed.

  15. Anonymous

    Dan said>>The public is clamoring for what newspapers give them. Properly done, journalism is necessary to democracy. And the economic basis for this popular service is disintegrating.Unfortunately we don’t get “Properly done, journalism”It is Slanted.It has an agenda.

  16. Harry

    Dan,A reasonably well informed public is essential for democracy. But “journalism” has no monopoly rights to provide such information to the public, unless you define journalism as any medium that informs – a definition too broad to be useful. Considering the fraction of the US population today that gets information mainly from local TV news and “Entertainment Tonight”, I am pleased that our democracy functions as well as it does.The means of content creation and distribution (for purposes of sharing news or otherwise) have been radically decentralized in the Internet era, and are becoming ever more so. This decentralization inevitably hurts the large incumbents (especially newspapers), who had very few competitors and enjoyed a business with significant barriers to entry. As for declining advertising revenue, the advertisers are simply trying to follow eyeballs with their spending, wherever the eyeballs may go.But today it still remains challenging to create a branded product with significant public awareness. Products and brands, as always, matter very much to consumers. Newspaper organizations (their business side, I mean) are hopelessly flabby when it comes to these now-critical organizational skills of strategic marketing and promotion, because for decades they have simply operated a golden franchise, many of them operating as near or outright monopolies. Now that world is disappearing, which is their tough luck. Similar structural changes have hurt workers in many other businesses, for example US auto workers. Whining that journalism is too vital to our democracy to be allowed to suffer from the forces causing its restructuring is a form of exceptionalism that, as I said above, I find self-righteous and silly.

  17. Dan Kennedy

    Harry: You stubbornly refuse to engage with the issue. Your argument would make perfect sense if newspapers were losing readers. They’re not — at least not in any significant numbers.

  18. Larz

    Before John Farrell or any overworked, underpaid authors sign on to write for any newspaper, they should read the contract, looking for reference to anything like World Rights. I believe the Globe requires freelancers to sign away all rights to the story. If it becomes part of a book or a movie, the company would own it.

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Larz: I’m almost certain that the Globe requires what might be called shared copyright. A week or so after publication, the author may once again exercise the right to do anything he wants with his work. However, so does the Globe. This was a point of dispute several years ago and resulted in the departure of several prominent freelancers, including columnist Linda Weltner.

  20. Harry

    Dan,Let’s find some common ground. Newspapers are losing subscribers and advertisers for their print products. This undermines their historical business model. Their online products, at present, cannot possibly replace this revenue decline. Hence their recent financial distress and loss of market cap, as epitomized by the NYT, whose stock has lost over 60% of its value in the past 5 years.Agree so far?Here is what I am saying:1) For established newspapers, competing online is far more difficult. In print most of them have competed with only 1 or 2 other firms, with very similar business models, which had not changed in decades. Online the competition is potentially global, it is against tens of thousands of firms of widely varying sizes, resources, and expertise. Their business models are fluid and vary all over the map. It is far more difficult to succeed here. You claim, “the public is clamoring for what newspapers give them”, but even if that is true there are many, many more products to choose from online that can substitute for what readers get (or used to get) from newspapers –- whether paper OR online newspapers. 2) Because companies like Google enable all sizes of content providers to easily include ads, there is far more competition for advertising revenue online. Despite its youth, there are also better metrics for evaluating online ads than there are for print ads, at least in terms of knowing how often they are viewed and whose eyeballs they appear in front of.3) I believe that 1 and 2 above mean that established newspapers as a whole cannot easily adapt to online world, that most of them will not succeed in doing so, and that their current revenue imbalances and financial distress will persist.4) The fundamental cause of newspapers’ distress is the far more intense competition that exists online for content provision and for advertising.5) Because of 4 above, I claim that newspapers represent a typical case where restructuring in an industry causes extreme distress to established market leaders. In most cases this distress is caused by globalization (for example, try finding a single American-made consumer electronics item). In the case of newspapers their distress is caused by technology changes that have given their subscribers/advertisers more alternatives and also enabled globalization of content distribution and advertising. Regardless, their dilemma is quite analogous to what has occurred many times before in other industries that were forced to restructure as competition became far wider through globalization.Does that “engage with the issue”? If so where and why do you disagree?

  21. Dan Kennedy

    Harry:I agree with all of this. But the common ground has to be an understanding that, though newspaper advertising is collapsing, readership is not. So many critiques of what’s wrong with the newspaper business begin with the misunderstanding that readers are turning away. They’re not.That said, the full-service daily newspaper can’t survive for more than a few more years — five? Ten? The Boston Globe can adapt for the time being by putting nearly all of its reporting power into local coverage, while using wires for world, national, and even some regional news. But in a world in which news sources are all or mostly online, why would anyone want to look at the wire copy that the Globe is publishing?So newspapers have a real problem with non-local news. Increasingly, they may have a problem with local news, too. What can the Globe do to ensure that it is the most reliable, comprehensive source for local political, business, health, academic, sports and arts coverage? It can compete like hell. But new competitors are going to come along that might do certain niche types of coverage better than the Globe.Keep an eye on, for instance. Eventually, it’s going to have local sites in all 50 states, providing the sort of intensely local coverage of politics that the Globe and the Herald used to carry routinely. As a political junkie, I know I’ll be a frequent visitor.Universal Hub is already the go-to source for stories on the MBTA and Boston’s neighborhoods. Sometimes it points to Globe and Herald coverage. Sometimes it points to bloggers who may not be producing professional-grade journalism, but who know everything that’s going on in their communities.I’m not a Celtics fan, but one of my students tells me that there’s a Celtics blog site that features fan coverage — they’re not just pointing to mainstream stories, they’re going to games. Supposedly a must-read for Celtics fans.So if we look some years into the future, we probably agree. But I’m not sure we agree on the present. The problem right now is a failure of the business model, but not a failure of editorial vision. No one in the news business was “clueless,” to use the favored new-media putdown, by failing to anticipate that Craigslist would come along and start giving away classifieds. What on earth is a newspaper company, which needs to earn substantial profits from classifieds, supposed to do about that?

  22. Anonymous

    Dan, I have to disagree with you. A cataclysmic fate has befallen newspapers and its going to get much worse before it gets better.The newspapers (NY Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe) just as they finally, finally, stood up to a President 40 years ago in the face of the horrible mistake that was the Vietnam War.One lazy Judy Miller killed newspapers for the next 50 years.Today, they lay down like dogs – LIKE DOGS! and exculpate themselves from the process.This is not the press that I grew up with, nor the press that I intend to live

  23. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 10:10: Disagree with me??? We are not even remotely talking about the same subject.

  24. Neil

    …whereas the online figure is derived from more precise methods of measurementand:The web eliminates that kind of uncertainty, shifting power from the publisher to the advertiser.Substantiating these claims would help support the premise that online readers are making up for loss of print readers. I don’t see that the State of the Media’s report supports them. In fact isn’t the point of the Online Audience metrics: The Web’s Biggest Challenge? section that there’s no agreed-upon method to gauge web traffic? And that this continues to be a headache for advertisers:But even as advertisers poured money into the Web, some expressed dissatisfaction with how traffic was being measured. And recently these concerns have grown louder.The trend obviously is that readers are getting more of their content online. But as the article says readers are more likely to arrive at an online article from the side doors of aggregator or blog links, as from an article’s “home page” (a term approaching quaintness). And once there they aren’t necessarily apt to remain within that website, since there’s no boundary. The site may get raw hits this way, but not so many unique visitors who click on more than one link within the site.It doesn’t seem precise to me then, to offset decline in print readers with the tally of raw hits to any say, Globe article, and conclude therefore that the readership numbers are steady. If that’s what whoever’s making this assertion (Dan?) is doing. Even “unique” visitors, so what, their value depends on how many links they click on within the site. A unique visitor hitting say six or ten links might approach the meaning of a print reader.(Again, if the methods are really “precise”, it would help to know what they were. What are the metrics?). In other words 10,000 hits to one article in your online edition doesn’t make up for the loss of 10,000 print readers. It’s not evidence of steady readership. Also, someone who has made a financial investment in the paper (ie, a print reader), even if they mightn’t have spent as long reading as they claim in a poll, is more likely to spend time reading more of the paper (especially if they claim to spend 40 minutes!) as tossing it into the trash unread. The online reader is apt to be navigating across sites following a train of thought. It certainly isn’t the same as someone who buys the entire newspaper. The difference is, I bought the Globe and found X in it, vs I found X, and it happened to be in the Globe. The particular site an article happens to be found in is tending to irrelevance.

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