Atlanta Journal-Constitution may be about to drop its daily print editions

Going, going, gone? Photo (cc) 2015 by J.C. Burns.

Anyone who was around 15 or 20 years ago would be surprised at the persistence of print. Back when newspapers started moving to the web, it seemed likely that print editions would soon become part of the past.

But as visions of lucrative interactive advertising gave way to the realities of Craigslist, Google and Facebook, print emerged as a way to slow down the decline of the newspaper business. The value of print advertising, though on the wane, held up far better than digital ads. And you could charge a lot for home delivery. Even as digitally focused a newspaper as The Boston Globe continues to earn more than half its revenues from the print edition.

Now that may be changing. For years, media observers have been predicting that daily print would eventually disappear. Under this scenario, most papers would continue with one big weekend print edition while switching to digital-only for the rest of the week. In 2019, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did just that, giving their subscribers iPads so they could continue to read the paper.

The next major news outlet to make that move may be The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, according to bloggers Maria Saporta and John Ruch. The move may be announced at a staff meeting this Thursday. In a staff memo, editor Kevin Riley said:

It’s been a while since we’ve had an in-person newsroom staff meeting, but don’t worry, I promise there won’t be any shoes dropping at this meeting. Instead, I would like to get together and share exciting information as we plan for our future. The leadership team hopes you leave the meeting feeling as optimistic as we do about our path forward — a path that allows us to continue to produce our meaningful work for a long time to come.

The challenges to cutting back to a weekly print edition are several. You need to find people who are willing to deliver the paper once a week, which represents a considerable loss of income. There’s a lot of down time for the presses, calling into question their continued viability. (The AJC outsourced its printing to The Times of  Gainesville in 2021.) The paper loses some of its visibility, making it more difficult to promote.

But there are real benefits, too, which is why the AJC may be doing it. According to paid circulation numbers that the paper reported to the Alliance for Audited Media earlier this year, print had fallen to just 39,917 on Monday, the lowest day of the week, and to 94,786 on Sunday. That shows the benefits of continuing with a weekend print edition. Overall circulation was 82,776 on Monday, 137,637 on Sunday.

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Advertising, which once accounted for 80% of a typical newspaper’s revenue, has been in an industry-wide downward spiral for many years — from a peak of nearly $49.5 billion in 2005 to an estimated $9.6 million billion in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Reader revenue, meanwhile, has been slowly rising, and now accounts for slightly more than half of all revenues.

In such an environment, it makes sense to cut back on print. Digital subscriptions don’t bring as much money as print, but the expenses are far lower. If The Atlanta Journal-Constitution succeeds, expect to see a lot more papers follow.

UNC donor reportedly opposes Hannah-Jones’ hiring because she’s not ‘objective’

The Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC. Photo (cc) 2020 by Mihaly I. Lukacs.

There’s been an important new development in the Nikole Hannah-Jones story. According to the veteran journalist John Drescher, writing for a North Carolina website called The Assembly, a “mega-donor” to the University of North Carolina opposed hiring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who conceived of the 1619 Project and who’s been denied tenure by the UNC board of trustees.

The donor is Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose $25 million gift to the UNC journalism program in 2019 resulted its being named the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Drescher reported that Hussman is so enamored of old-fashioned both-sides objectivity that he “relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.” Among other things, Hussman wrote:

My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University. Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.

Hussman is no fan of the 1619 Project either, although he appears to be aligned more with historians who’ve criticized it than he is with those on the right who’ve attacked it.

Now, there are several curious aspects to Hussman’s opposition. First of all, Hannah-Jones is an opinion journalist who works for the Times’ opinion section. Her journalism is rigorously fact-based, informed by a strong point of view. Does Hussman really oppose such journalism? After all, the Democrat-Gazette has an opinion section. (All four of the ADG’s  opinion journalists who warrant a headshot are white men, by the way.)

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The other curious aspect is that Hussman doesn’t actually understand what objectivity is. The Assembly quotes from an op-ed that Hussman wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2019:

Two years ago I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn’t believe in the “false equivalency” of presenting both sides, and that she sees her job as determining the truth, then sharing it with her audience. I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements.

The problem is that objective reporting, as conceived by Walter Lippmann more than 100 years ago, is an open-minded and dispassionate pursuit of the truth, not balance or both-sidesism. “Seek truth and report it” is the way the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics puts it.

Hussman, unfortunately, has embraced the caricature of objectivity. And Hannah-Jones has gotten caught up in his misunderstanding.

Addendum: In 2019 I wrote about a genuinely innovative idea at the ADG: the paper was giving iPads to its subscribers so it could stop printing the paper and save money. If you let your subscription lapse, it would stop working.

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The start of a trend? Gannett sells Nantucket paper to local owners

Nantucket. Photo (cc) 2013 by Si B.

I don’t suppose this is the beginning of a trend, but it’s great news nevertheless: The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket has been sold to local owners.

According to an announcement on the weekly paper’s website, Gannett (the part that’s formerly GateHouse Media) has agreed to sell the paper to a group put together by editor and publisher Marianne Stanton and a local businessman named David Worth.

I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton. I think it’s pretty cool, too.

No sooner did I tweet about this than I learned that Gannett had also sold The Pine Bluff Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is itself independently owned. So maybe it is a trend. Or a mini-trend.

Meanwhile, the perpetually downsizing Gannett continues to struggle. Chief executive Mike Reed announced last week that the chain would embark on another round of voluntary buyouts.

So if you’d like to acquire the Gannett paper in your community, it sounds like it might be a good time to make an offer.

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Want a free iPad? Buy a newspaper! In Arkansas, an audacious experiment.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing good about the ongoing economic collapse of local newspapers. But if you squint hard, you can see a few hopeful signs amid the gloom. Recently I wrote about The Salt Lake Tribune’s bid to become the country’s first nonprofit daily newspaper.

This week I want to take a look at an idea that, in some ways, is even more audacious: the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s announcement that it will abandon weekday print and give an iPad to all of its paying subscribers so they can read the digital edition.

The news came in the form of a letter to subscribers by publisher Walter Hussman, who said that all of the Democrat-Gazette’s customers will be offered an iPad later this year. The emphasis will be on a replica edition — that is, an electronic paper that looks exactly like the print version, an old-fashioned concept still popular with many readers. The paper will continue to offer a Sunday print edition.

“Although newspapers will never be as profitable as they once were,” Hussman wrote, “we believe we have found a way to return the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to profitability and provide a better and more robust reading experience for our subscribers.”

The shift has already taken place in some Arkansas counties, with Democrat-Gazette employees meeting with befuddled subscribers at Holiday Inns and even in their homes to help them navigate the online paper. Indeed, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, weekday digital now outsells print by about 86,000 to 82,000. Print remains the choice on Sunday by a margin of 118,000 to 10,000. But the ADG, as the paper is known, is rapidly moving toward a day when its weekday print circulation will be zero.

“If 70% of subscribers stay with us, the cost savings will let the ADG hire more reporters,” wroteStyle section editor Celia Storey on her public Facebook page. And just in case you were wondering, Storey also explained that readers who let their subscriptions lapse will soon discover that their iPad no longer works.

The notion of giving away iPads in order to cut the cost of printing and delivering the physical newspaper might seem revolutionary, but it’s been many years in the making. Back in the early 1990s, an executive for the now-defunct Knight Ridder chain named Roger Fidler was telling anyone who would listen that newspapers of the future would give away cheap digital tablets so they could shut down their printing presses. In some ways we still haven’t caught up with Fidler, who envisioned tablets you could roll up and stick in your pocket and that would offer resolution as high as a good quality magazine. (Click here to watch a 1994 video of Fidler explaining his remarkably prescient idea.)

The Boston Globe recently also reached something of a landmark on the road to a post-print world. Writing in the Boston Business Journal, Don Seiffert reported that the Globe’s digital circulation has now moved ahead of its weekday print circulation by a margin of 112,000 to 99,000 — and that represents an overall increase (combined print and digital) of about 7,000 paying subscribers since mid-2016. Can free iPads be far behind? (As with the ADG and virtually every other paper, the Globe’s Sunday print edition remains its largest, with a circulation of 172,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.)

What’s happening in Salt Lake, Arkansas, Boston, and a few other places whose newspapers are owned by civic-minded local publishers should offer encouragement. Elsewhere, newspapers are being shackled by corporate chains.

The money-losing McClatchy group reported earleir this month that its 30 properties, which include large papers such as the Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee, and The Charlotte Observer, have signed up just 179,000 digital-only subscribers — and that’s an increase of 60 percent over a year ago.

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor writes at Nieman Lab that the bottom-feeding Gannett chain continues to fight off an acquisition attempt by the even worse MediaNews Group (formerly Digital First Media), a battle between unappetizing rivals that I wrote about a few months ago.

Amid such chaos and greed, it’s important to keep in mind that some newspaper owners continue to search for a business model that doesn’t require slashing their newsrooms to irrelevance. Seen in that light, accelerating the transition from print to digital is an investment in the future.

The math to get from seven-day to one-day print remains daunting. Print subscribers are still more valuable. Not only do they pay more, but print ads are worth much more than commodity digital advertising. But if newspapers can get to the point over the next few years at which they can dump print, it will save a ton of money that they now spend on what is essentially a 19th-century manufacturing and delivery operation.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette may show the way.

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