Why newspapers are dying, the short version…

March 23, 2009

I’ve written so much about the demise of newspapers that there is not much more I can say, but I can boil everything down to a lot fewer words:

Newspapers are dying because news as a commodity, although in big demand, is being given away free, on TV, the internet (ironically by newspapers among others), and various other new electronic gadgets.

And because of that newspapers have lost readership for their paid paper editions and have for that reason alone lost their advertising share. And to remind those who don’t realize it, advertising is what makes or made newspapers money.

The Wall Street Journal recently changed ownership and I do not know how it is doing financially, but it is instructive to point out it does not give its news away for free either in its printed or online editions, except in rare circumstances.

If something is free, generally that is how much it is worth.

Lost ad revenue kills newspapers, hope not lost…

March 22, 2009

Being a former working journalist (my last news job was at least 15 years ago), I have posted several blogs about the demise of the newspaper business. But here’s another one:

What’s killing newspapers is plain and simple – the loss of advertising revenue.

When I was ten I sold newspapers on the street for 10 cents per copy. I think I got four cents — or was it three? —  for each paper (darn those newspaper bizz folks can be tight).

But I learned at that tender age from my father, who worked the news side of the business for more than 40 years, that newspapers did not make their profits from the sale of each copy, but rather advertising revenue. At best they paid for distribution and maybe printing costs out of the per-copy sales.

Back then (late 1950s) newspapers had a near lock on advertising. All the local merchants (not to mention national), from clothing stores to grocery stores, paid to have the local newspaper actually design and produce and print their ads in the local edition. Classifieds – you know, help wanted, cars for sale, real estate and so on – were also a major source of revenue, and the newspaper was the only game in town for that.

When I took my first journalism class, my instructor was a former small town newspaper owner/editor/chief photographer and ad salesman type (the standard weekly paper). He said – and this was now the early 70s – look at any newspaper, big or small, and see how large their classified section is and the thicker it is the more prosperous the newspaper is likely to be. That’s because classifieds demonstrate the fact that people, from workaday citizens trying to sell their old heap of a car, to real estate salesmen trying to make another big sale, believed that readership was so strong that likely prospects would see their ads.

Broadcast, radio and TV, only siphoned off a relatively small amount of ad revenue. That’s because there is only so much one can do with broadcast ads. Often they were more of a supplement to printed ads than a replacement. Grocery ads don’t  generally work or TV or Radio (although it has been done).

Then sometime in the 70s, advertisers, especially big stores, started going to pre-printed ads produced by large commercial printing companies (many years later I would haul newsprint to these companies while I was going through my truck driving phase – 12 to 13 years).

The newspapers took a big hit on that one. They were still paid to distribute the ads within their newspapers, but at a far lower rate than when they produced them.

Now ever since I was a little kid there has been an animal that looks something like a newspaper, but has little to no actual news in it. It’s called a shopper (or my own local newspaper today).

These shoppers were distributed free to each household, sometimes at the doorstep and sometimes via mail. Some were printed by entrepreneurs and others by newspapers, as a kind of supplement.

Then at some point some of the big chain stores turned the tables on local newspapers and demanded that if they wanted any advertising in their regular newspapers they must agree to a saturation distribution of these free shoppers.

I witnessed this when I worked for the Red Bluff (Ca.) Daily News. The demanding chain at the time as Kmart. The chain only stayed in town about ten years, as I recall. Today Walmart is the going thing, and they don’t even advertise, except possibly with some pre-printed circulars.

Ironically, even though the baby boom generation seems to be the last of the dependable newspaper readers, it was probably that generation which started to stray from the printed word, being the first generation to be brought up on TV.

Some will say I exaggerate, but college instructors will say otherwise – today a large portion of the freshmen who enter public colleges are, shall we say, reading challenged? For some reason the public schools de-emphasized reading or could not fight the trend away from the printed word.

That fact certainly has not boosted newspaper readership.

Now for some more irony. The current generation is hooked on the internet and Twitter and Facebook (some of this I barely recognize) and texting, and all of this involves the printed (electronically printed) word. However, a lot of it involves slang abbreviations and perhaps a completely new language. In a strange way, it may be good that at least they are back to some kind of written language.

But in both the lack or reading and the corresponding lack of writing ability and the hyper thought process of texting, a lot of critical thinking seems to be lost.

On the other hand there is a segment of the new generation (how large, I don’t know) who seem to be quite articulate and open minded and who demonstrate some critical thinking skills.

I worry, though, that history these days seems to be something that happened the day before yesterday or at the very most the day before someone of the current generation was born.

But that has been an ongoing problem in America. The lack of historical perspective can be dangerous. I believe it is why we got involved in Vietnam and in Iraq and in Afghanistan and perhaps why we failed to heed the signals of financial calamity that was really deja vu 1929. We only think the moment, not of what may have gone on before as a clue to what might happen in the future. And we have often failed to use critical thinking skills to guard against jingoism (fight terror, get’em over there before they come over here). 

But I strayed from my original thesis.

So since the 70s new advertising mediums have opened up, to include cable and satellite TV, the internet, and the bane of newspapers everywhere – Craigslist, where you can place your own classified ad for FREE!

I find it odd that Craigslist has not been challenged in court for unfair business practices. I was always told that if one business opened up next to another and offered its wares for free to put the first business out of business that such was in common business law an unfair business practice.

Craigslist is a business. It makes its money on other types of online advertising, but its classifieds are for the most part free. It has drawn some legal scrutiny, being charged with running ads that solicit prostitution.

So, declining readership of traditional paper newspapers has dropped off, but worse yet, ad revenue has in some cases virtually disappeared.

The newspapers that are surviving are often smaller niche papers. They may be in a community where there is no other source of local and/or regional news.

For my money, I think local papers that are locally run are better situated for survival. The chains for the most part use local papers as cash cows with no care for content. And their neglect is leading to the disappearance of a lot of those formerly cash cow newspapers.

Newspapers at the higher end are facing the same problems with the addition of fixed production costs that are way too high.

But hope is not lost. I think dedicated local newspapers can survive, and so can larger papers that can find their own niche and be nimble and flexible. I also see some evidence among some bloggers, not all, that a new kind of journalism that combines the old style with new multi-media technology is developing.

As far as the actual paper newspaper surviving, I think there is an outside chance. I know I get extremely fatigued reading computer screens to get my news and I can’t be alone.


It’s strange, I love to blog, but I prefer to read regular news stories in a newspaper over reading them on the screen.

(Copyright 2009)

For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for newspapers

October 30, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

With news that the Christian Science Monitor will cease daily print publication next spring and go totally online and the constant reports of declining newspaper circulation and advertising revenues, it seems that the death knell of newspapers as we have known them has finally tolled.

As I wrote in a previous blog, the demise of newspapers was said to be imminent when I took my first journalism classes in 1972. That was premature, but prescient, nonetheless. At the time, they thought maybe people might start reading modern electronic newspapers on some type of board that resembled the conventional newspaper. The PC had not come into prominence yet, let alone the BlackBerry.

I have read that some local newspapers across the country are doing well, but that is only some. The local seven-day per week newspaper where I live in the northern end of California’s Sacramento Valley seems to be dying a slow and painful death (and they keep telling us so in their editorials and have even hinted they may go to less than daily, possibly cutting out as much as two or three days). Their only hope, they think, is to keep their online version going. Somehow I think that if they drop their regular print version, the online version will disappear too, or maybe not, but it won’t be the same animal. And what the far away corporate moguls do not get is that the local newspaper has a monopoly on local news and people are interested in it – they just wish the paper would present more of it and in a more professional and comprehensive and consistent manner.

Newspapers as a source of immediate news for the most part went the way of the dodo bird a long, long time ago, kind of.

If there is really some breaking news, especially an accident or natural disaster, radio and TV are going to have it first and while it is still news. But for the most part, they only do what amounts to headlines. And you have to devote a lot of time to watch expanded coverage, and you only get the presentation on their schedule, and then you still don’t get the detail that can be provided in the more convenient printed form.

I have always wondered what would happen if there were no conventional news media such as newspapers. Then we really would be down to unchecked rumor and a mismatch of style in presenting news that might become incomprehensible and/or unreliable.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet, and it is the only way I get most of my news, except the most local of news, for which I still have to depend upon my local newspaper. There is a website operated by two former local newspaper employees but so far it is not offering anything substantial. It’s hard to find time to work for nothing. And quality is still a problem.

I worked as a small town radio reporter for about nine months once. I learned that except for the actual on-the-spot news, traffic accidents and once or twice a courtroom verdict, most of our news came out of the local newspaper. We at least had the decency to rewrite it and add to it a little. When I worked at the paper, the jerk radio reporter just read my stories verbatim and didn’t even attribute them, after I did the leg work. I will say, though, that once when I worked in Arizona, a radio station read one of my stories and gave my name – thanks.

I noticed through the years that a lot of stories on the nightly TV news were generated from stories that had first appeared in major daily newspapers, sometimes days earlier, or were from stories out of news wire services, generated by newspaper reporters or wire service reporters. (In a kind of related issue, AP or Associated Press, a kind of newspaper cooperative wire service, is losing clientele.)

Newspapers have provided the base for news that is presented in all mediums. Even now it is common for a TV reporter to do a standup report and hold up a copy of the local newspaper as a visual prop to show what big news something is.

Then there are the bloggers, such as me. I don’t do news these days, just commentary. But I learned a long time ago after losing a newspaper job to a corporate downsizing that I couldn’t just do the same job, but on my own (I thought of putting out a local newsletter). No one was going to pay me to drive around or make phone calls to collect news. And blogging had not come into being yet. But even today, I am not making any money at this (although some enterprising thieves do snatch my blogs and post them on their websites which contain paid advertising – probably Republicans!).

A story in the New York Times (online of course) noted that at a recent media conference someone worried that with the demise of the conventional news media (to include newspapers) the internet might become a “cesspool” of useless information (more than it already is, I add). And it wasn’t some disgruntled print journalist making that observation. It was Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google.

My point is that there needs to be some base and some reliable check on the accuracy of information and even a gatekeeper to sort fact from rumor or legitimate news from gossipy tidbits (not that any method is totally reliable in this or that everyone agrees on what constitutes legitimacy or gossip).

If newspapers survive online, maybe the support structure of editors and such will survive, although I have my doubts.

Another thing to consider is that the internet is not likely to remain essentially free.

As an example, once newspapers no longer make their revenue off of the printed paper medium, they will need new sources of income. Some reputable organizations are already either charging for all of their stories or are giving us only teaser paragraphs and then charging for access to the rest.

A dirty secret is that news is a commodity that has been virtually given away free for a long time. The result is that news can be hard to sell.

Some specialized types of news are probably easier to put a price tag on, such as that handled by the Wall Street Journal.

We may end up with a world where only those who can afford it will be fully informed.

Even though I already knew it, I got first-hand confirmation of the fact that news is not what makes newspapers money (at least not directly) when I took my first newspaper job. We as news staffers were often reminded that the management felt we were mere troublesome overhead. It was the selling of advertising that made money (an ad salesperson paid directly for his or her own salary out of his or her own sales). The cost of each paper, at that time a dime, paid for part of the cost of printing the newspaper, nothing more. It was a small daily newspaper.

The newspaper’s profit was dependent upon the amount of advertising it sold. But due to the mechanical requirements of printing, there is often a break point where you have to choose between having not enough room for news or possibly having way too much space to fill (and not because there is not enough news, but production takes time and money – that was even more so in those pre-computer days). Often I would hear things like, “gosh I hate to have that much news.” That can be interpreted in different contexts, but ad people generally prefer tight pages, filled with ads and a little news filler in between. I often frankly wondered why the small newspapers, which did not and still don’t for the most part, have any respect or understanding of journalism, even bothered to run any news content at all. Of course without some news content they could not call themselves newspapers, but there is an animal called a shopper – in fact for the most part, that is what our local newspaper is. Shoppers supposedly are not able to command as much for their advertising rates.

I actually enjoy reading a real paper newspaper and find it much more comfortable and less fatiguing as opposed to a computer screen (and don’t you find yourself doing a lot more skimming on the screen?), although for the volume and immediacy of information, the computer is best.

And I believe I blogged once before that I think some type of medium that looks and feels like a newspaper, but that is electronic and can be updated immediately could hold promise.

Meanwhile, I hope CNN, Google, Yahoo, and the New York Times, and others keep posting fee news and information for me.