Born again believer in newsprint newspapers???

March 27, 2009

Just as I had convinced myself that for newspapers to hang onto their model of paper newspapers would be like continuing to produce buggy whips when everyone was going to the Model T Ford, something came along to almost make me a born again believer in my old friend and source of income, the traditional newspaper.

It’s no secret that newspapers all over the United States (particularly big ones) are folding or on the edge of doing so. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer no more, except on the web, and the Rocky Mountain News out of Denver gone and the San Francisco Chronicle on the brink of shutting down if no buyer can be found and so many others gone and even the New York Times, the very symbol of newspapers in America (even if its politics offends conservatives) facing massive cutbacks.

But the bright spot may be many generally small local daily newspapers. They often have a niche and meet a demand for news in which they have little to no competition. And if they are fortunate enough to be independently owned, as opposed to corporate owned, that can be a blessing.

I may be easily swayed by the place newspapers have in my heart (and sometimes it’s been a kind of love hate relationship because of my personal history with them), but what threatens to make me a born again believer in the ink on paper business is some things I read on the web (and isn’t that ironic) on a site called the “Silicon Alley (not valley) Insider” (edited by Nicholas Carlson).

The main points are paraphrased and otherwise interpreted by me as follows:

Did the railroads turn themselves into airlines?

One newspaper investor identified ten good buys around the country and opined that newspapers should only use their internet sites as a link to national and world news and that they ought to charge for local news on the internet or not provide it on the electronic format at all. He also said that they definitely need to charge for their local news presentation in their regular paper format.

And it was also suggested that the newspaper industry knows the traditional printing business and would do better to stick with it and that it is not the newspapers’ job to figure out how to make money off of advertising on the internet.

It was suggested that hypothetically by calculating from cost figures supplied by the New York Times, that it could stop printing and have enough money to buy each of its readers that new fangled electronic reading device called a Kindle. But that was only hypothetical and to do so would be to lose its print ads (its main revenue) in the process.

I think the idea here is that railroads should stick to the railroad business and airlines to the airline business even though they both are in the transportation business.

And that brought up the contention I guess made long ago by Harvard professor Theodore Levitt that railroads thought they were in the railroad business, not the transportation business.

But as things have come to pass, railroads are much more profitable than airlines (I’ll buy the Reading Line and pass go and collect $200 please).

An inescapable fact in all of this though is that production costs for the traditional newspaper to include the printing presses, the newsprint, the ink, transportation, the labor, and so on can be prohibitive.

(Newspapers, especially the smaller ones, often make use of their presses for commerical printing jobs.) 

So anyway it was all food for thought, another perspective.

P.s.

It troubles me that San Francisco, the city of my birth, could lose its last remaining daily newspaper. My wife picked up a copy of it the other day – not much left ( I mean I liked what I read, but there was not much of it).

(Copyright 2009)

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Competing against free ads hard on newspapers

November 13, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

I’ve written several times about the demise of newspapers. I think I witnessed first hand one of the reasons while observing my son-in-law on the computer. I asked him what he was looking at. He said “Craigslist”. That’s the famous online free classified service.

He mentioned that at his work when they needed to run a help wanted ad they didn’t go through the newspaper (in his area that would be the Sacramento Bee), because the classifieds are too expensive. It is hard to beat free.

Actually, Craigslist does charge of help wanted ads in some select cities and for brokered apartment listings in New York City, and those two things are their sole source of income, according to Wikipedia. But a whole host of other types of listings are free. Craigslist also provides a platform for various online forums. And apparently this multi-million enterprise is still headquartered in a house in San Francisco’s Sunset District (at least according to Wikipedia). I think I recall seeing a piece about Craigslist on 60 Minutes.

(You the reader may well know more about Craigslist than I do. This blog is not really about Craigslist, but I hope my abbreviated description is accurate as far as it goes.)

When I took beginning journalism back in the early 70s I recall my instructor (who once owned his own small-town weekly newspaper) saying that a good rule of thumb in judging the financial success of any newspaper is the size of its classified section. I was never in the business end of the newspaper business, but I can see that so clearly now. That base of a strong classified section means the newspaper is getting a lot of revenue from the classifieds, plus it indicates readership, plus it’s a foundation for the publication as a medium that carries the more expensive display advertising, to include full-page ads.

In the case of help wanted, I imagine a lot of job seekers these days don’t read a newspaper, but they do have access to a computer. The same goes for home and apartment seekers and those looking for a deal on a car and so on.

I am also seeing clearly that newspapers are embracing online as more than an adjunct to their traditional newspaper on newsprint – it may become the replacement. I still think the idea of some type of electronic medium that looks and feels like a newspaper but that can be updated constantly could be the wave of the future – and I’m not talking about the laptop, notebook, iPod, or BlackBerry, several of which I know little to nothing about.

The only way newspapers will survive is finding their niche. Local newspapers have an automatic niche because I have yet to know of a locality that has any competition for local news that a newspaper can provide. A major problem is that too many newspapers over these past many decades have been taken over by people who never had a real background nor interest in real newspapering. They have treated their publications as advertising cash cows – not willing to put any quality investment into them. That worked in the past, but with the arrival of the internet that is not cutting it so well anymore.

Some metropolitan newspapers may be able to survive by appealing to the dwindling but ever present readership who really care about getting a more complete and well rounded coverage of news, not only local, but of the region and the nation and the world. A goodly portion of that readership has bucks, so a significant amount of available advertising should (could) go with it.

At least one editor of a local and family-owned newspaper I talked to said his publication is fortunate in that its classified section is still strong. He noted that other papers in his region had been hurt by the competition from Craigslist, but so far that has not hit his publication. And, he also said that his paper has actually expanded its editorial staff. He did say that his paper is looking at upgrading its online service and is struggling with its circulation (and the question is do you charge for online subscriptions? Some say yes, some suggest no, he notes). He said the baby boomers are the most loyal subscribers.

Another area where newspapers have lost out is all that supplement advertising that falls out of your paper. Back in the old days, the newspapers printed most of that advertising themselves and could charge for that. Nowadays those supplements are printed by giant printing companies who do nothing but print advertising. I spent a lot of time as a truck driver hauling newsprint. More of my deliveries went to commercial printing plants than actual newspapers. The newspapers still make money on that advertising, just not as much.

That newspaper editor I talked to said the industry went from complaining about the lost revenue from inserts back in the 1970s to being “just happy we’re getting them” now.

Meanwhile, my local newspaper gets smaller and smaller and duller and duller as its corporate headquarters demands ever more reductions in staff. And then they have the audacity to raise their subscription rates. As one local blogger put it, they provide less to but in return want more from their customers.

The tidal wave of real estate foreclosures has been a boon to classified sections because newspapers by law must be used to print the legal notices in the foreclosure process (the newspaper lobby earned its keep on that one). But hopefully for the rest of us that won’t last long and it wouldn’t do the local newspapers much good if their communities were decimated.

If newspapers fail to adapt to the changing market they deserve to fail, although we will all be the worse for it.

I also believe that automakers and bankers deserve to fail from their own mistakes or their own failure to adapt to a changing environment (unfortunately we all get hurt in that process too). In the short term we may be able to prop these two segments of the economy up, but eventually we will all run out of money. The Soviet Union in its structure had complete control of its economy, but it went broke and lost the backing of its populace (even though we thought the latter could never happen in a police state).

And what this last part has to do with Craigslist or newspapers – don’t ask me, I just write this stuff.

——————————————————————————–

Ps. When you have a brother who is 20 years older it is hard to fudge on family history. In my original draft concerning my mom’s 98 years I had mistakenly written that the family lived in San Francisco during my sister’s first year, but was corrected by my brother. I corrected that to read that they lived in San Jose. How I came to make that mistake I do not know since I always knew she was born in San Jose. Big brother (no not the Orwellian one – but my real one) is keeping me honest and accurate. That could be a full-time job.

P.s. P.s.

German words used in English: check out my latest German-American blog posts at http://vonwalther.wordpress.com


For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for newspapers

October 30, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

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.


News blues…

June 3, 2008
(copyright)
The WALTHER REPORT
By Tony Walther
 
In general, newspaper circulation and ad revenues are in a free fall. Newspaper readership has been declining for a couple of decades or more. In fact, when I began in journalism back in the early 70s, the demise of the newspaper was seen as imminent. The institution survived.
 
Some local “niche” newspapers are doing better, reportedly, but overall, the trend is down, down, down.
 
Americans don’t read as much as they used to. And now the internet, through which I blog and e-mail this column, has really put the screws to the old-fashioned hold-in- your-hands paper newspaper.
 
Now, newspapers have gone online. At first it was just an adjunct to their traditional real newspaper, but now some are considering that online may be their future. I have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I see an opportunity for print media to survive, albeit in an electronic form. On the other hand, I don’t see how you replace the experience, the feeling of holding your own newspaper in your hands and being able to turn the pages and the convenience of carrying it where you go. Maybe people just don’t care for that anymore. But I got to thinking about that the other night as I was reading a novel. I had earlier in the day perused some novels online. As I lay on the living room couch, holding a paperback book in my hands, I realized that the experience reading the real thing, instead of following the words on a computer screen, is much more enjoyable. It’s just an altogether different medium.
 
Maybe a little off the track here, but I like watching movies on the big screen, as opposed to on a television screen. It’s a different form of the art.
 
But back to newspapers. The declining readership, which has led to declining ad revenue, has threatened to destroy the business. With the explosion of information (and misinformation) available via the internet, newspapers have been crowded out.
 
The biggest place they have been hit is hard news. Since I constantly scan the internet, I rarely, if ever, find any new news in my newspaper – that is on the national and world level. Now this has been a fact for decades if you look at print vs. television (but TV news is headlines and over simplified reports). Now we have instant news via printed, or written, word on our computer screens. So, by the time I get the news in my paper it seems as if it is ancient history.
 
The same is not true for local news. So far, in my neck of the woods anyway, my local newspaper is the only medium providing anything near comprehensive local news. The local radio stations and television stations only provide a few headlines, and they often come straight out of the newspaper. In fact, it seems strange that our local newspaper can beat the local television stations with the news.
 
Local TV news in the hinterlands where I live is still predominantly in the nature of cute pet stories. And you can’t compare broadcast with print anyway. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
 
There is a problem, though, because the chain that owns our local newspaper is losing money, it has cut back on the newspaper’s staff and, ironically, after going to an emphasis on local coverage, so much so that cute dog stories make the lead on the front page, it has less real local news. And the powers that be can’t figure our why their readership continues to decline.
 
But the local editor proudly proclaims that his paper’s online readership is improving and that it is the wave of the future. But looking at its online content, I am not impressed. I suspect that the online version could take over eventually, but the end result will be a mediocre presentation with still limited readership. I don’t know how much advertising revenue the newspaper has been able to attract with the online.
 
One long-time writer left the paper – she was either fired or quit, depending on what version you choose to believe – and is posting her own website, but it is not really a news presentation. It does seem to have some advertising on it, mostly business cards. She has actually managed to scoop the local newspaper on a few stories, although nothing major. Mostly it’s just local folks writing about their hobbies and businesses, some chit chat and self promotion.
 
Someone had suggested that all the former and disgruntled local newspaper writers ought to get together and put out their own online newspaper. I think that would be a problem for anyone who has to make a living. The first thing I discovered after losing my last newspaper job in a corporate downsizing, is that all those years someone was paying me for making those phone calls and driving around and doing all that leg work I did as a reporter. Yeah, I was of the old school. I did leg work. Online was in development then, but I realized that I could not afford to gather news on my own.
 
Ad revenue is what makes everything possible. Disgruntled out of work newspaper writers would have to practically create their own traditional business model, another newspaper, in order to compete with the only game in town.
 
Traditional newspapers don’t even know quite what to make of online. They jumped into it several years ago, giving everything away for free. Some have started to charge for it, but have found folks reluctant to subscribe, when they can get so much for free on the internet. Advertisers want to know how many people will actually see their ads. They like to think that there is a reader commitment to the medium they buy space in or on.
 
Maybe eventually when there are a lot fewer real newspapers and more online sites start charging for what they present, the picture will change. And I think that is the way it will go.
 
Media News Group CEO Dean Singleton runs a chain that owns lots of newspapers, big and small. He’s the scourge of real journalists, but he is powerful and he had some things to say recently at a newspaper confab:
 
He said that online is the future, but that newspapers need to maintain their core, real newspapers, because it will “finance the future.”
 
Most interesting to me, though, was that he said journalists need to get off their high horses and get down to the readers’ level (that, of course in my paraphrasing). Reportedly, what he actually said in part was that newspaper folks should  “…quit writing and editing for each other…” and  “…move to a print model to match the times.” (The Singleton stuff was out of Editor and Publisher’s online site.)
 
I don’t know what Singleton meant exactly. I hope he didn’t mean quit editing for grammar and readability, and I hope he didn’t mean everyone should write in blog or e-mail style as some do with a little i for the personal pronoun and all those texting abbreviations.
 
Some so-called local newspapers run unedited news releases and copy locals bring in with all of their misspellings and commas and colons and semi-colons stuck in here and there at any place for no apparent reason. Some folks think that anytime you use an S you have to use an apostrophe. Grammar is not meant to be some type of esoteric exercise, it has to do with clear communication. If you have read this far, you may feel I need my own grammar remediation – but I try (even if I do make up some of my own rules).
 
Back to whether folks will pay for online: If you have some reliable and valuable information, people are willing to pay for it. The Wall Street Journal does not present its work for free (just a few teaser articles that say you have to sign up to get the rest of the story), and some others have gone that way also.
 
The energy crisis could play into all of this too. As oil becomes more and more expensive, the production of electricity that runs the internet gets pricier too. It may become too expensive to provide info over the net for free. I did not come up with that. I heard that on a PBS business report.
 
Well, another ramble from me, but I think online is the future of what we now call print journalism. I am happy it has a future. You have to be able to read news and absorb it to be an informed citizen of the world.
 
We have already seen what happens when large numbers of the public choose to keep themselves in the dark because they just can’t find the time to read or possibly never learned how to read. For one, politicians run amok. A man who has no ability or inclination to look at issues objectively and who surrounds himself with sycophants, and makes war where he can find it by shading the truth, gets elected, not once, but two times as leader of the free world.
 
What is really needed is a new emphasis in our schools on reading. No not how many books I read contests (how do you know the books were really read?), but reading and writing about what is read. Trouble is, a lot of our modern teachers are reading challenged themselves. They just never had the time. Sorry about that last one. That may have been an overstatement. But I watched a young teacher on a quiz show recently. She didn’t know where the Hamptons were, among other things. Apparently she never read “The Great Gatsby.”