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MEDIA:decline in readership figures and slumping ad revenues, 2008 has been one of the worst years for the US print media since the Depression. Is it finally time to stop the press? asks Conn Corrigan

ANDREW NUSCA could have been forgiven for thinking he was hot journalistic property when he completed his master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism last May. Nusca, 23 years old and living in New York, did as much as could be expected of any young journalist starting out.

He did five internships, including three at major magazine publishing houses: Time Inc, Condé Nast and Hearst. He wanted to be versatile, so he learned how to shoot and edit video, build websites and take photographs, as well as the more traditional journalistic skills.

While in Columbia, his stories were published in a number of publications, building an impressive portfolio. He networked, creating his own website to showcase his work, and built up as many contacts as he could.

He then "applied like a madman", according to an account of his job-seeking on his blog, "the Editorialiste". Still, nothing.

Nusca probably couldn't have picked a worse time to apply. Last year was described by one analyst in the New York Times as, "the worst year for newspaper business since the Depression". In June, the New York Observer ran a story with the headline, "Black and white, red all over: is 2008 the worst year in modern newspaper history?" Not only is Nusca competing against other young journalists for what few jobs there are, but also against a new cohort of recently laid-off, more experienced journalists.

Media Bistro, a website for media professionals, has a daily newsletter that has been relentless in its delivery of stories of lay-offs, publications folding, and downsizing in recent months. Last September, to cite one example, the New York Sun, a small, combative daily, folded. It had never made a profit but existed largely off the back of wealthy businessmen who shared its neoconservative philosophy. Eventually, they pulled out.

Time Inc, a subsidiary of the media conglomerate Time Warner, which publishes around 125 titles including Time, Sports Illustrated and People, has announced it is to slash around 6 per cent of its global workforce. The Associated Press newswire service is reportedly planning to cut 10 per cent of its staff this year. Last October, the Christian Science Monitor announced it will become "the first nationally circulated newspaper to replace its daily print edition with its website". And last month, the long-troubled Tribune Company, a media conglomerate which owns, among others, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy.

The main problems for newspapers - a decline in ad revenues and the loss of readers to online news outlets - have been around for years but have accelerated in recent months. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show newspaper circulation for spring and summer this year was down almost 5 per cent from the previous year. The problems are particularly acute for the big city dailies: the Houston Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Detroit News all experienced declines in circulation of 10 per cent or more.

According to the Pew Research Center's "Project for Excellence in Journalism", advertising revenues fell by about 7 per cent in 2007. For last year, "prospects were for more declines in revenue and earnings".

Putting more resources into online operations is one obvious way around the problem of dwindling circulations. But simply having more of an online presence may not always be enough.

"The problem the print media has is that while it's cheaper to be purely digital, and while ad dollars are flowing online, those dollars aren't as much as what they were getting offline," says Michael Cervieri, the executive producer of scribemedia.org, a software development, media production and new-media consulting firm.

Declining ad revenues, which result in thinner papers and fewer editorial staff, have implications for the quality of journalism being produced. "The only thing that really gives me great pause is the economic puzzle [of how to make] an adequate amount of money on the internet, as you do on paper, so you can do the important things in journalism," David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, said in an interview with the Dubliner earlier this year.

"To hire photographers and reporters to go and do the real work in journalism, these are expensive things. If the enterprise of reporting is deeply undermined by the riddle of how to get department stores to advertise online as they would on paper, then I would be scared."

Some journalists are questioning how long print can sustain itself. "The dailies are in big trouble," says Tony Ortega, the editor of the Village Voice, based in New York.

"It appears that they're now in a death spiral and it's stomach-turning to watch. Good journalists are being jettisoned every day as companies watch their ad revenues dwindle and printing costs rise."

In response to the current crisis, some organisations are looking at new business models. One of these is the non-profit model. "We're already starting to see more non-profit online dailies pop up in cities around the country," says Andrew Donohue, the editor of voiceofsandiego.org, a non-profit news website that has broken a number of major stories in San Diego. "We get calls and e-mails every week now from people around the country who want advice on how to start similar publications in their communities."

These websites typically run on a shoe-string budget, relying on foundations, donors and occasionally advertising.

There are also a number of websites that have a more national focus, such as ProPublica, which is devoted to investigative journalism, something which, given the amount of time and money that goes into it, is often first to be axed when budgets are cut in a traditional newspaper.

However, while the growth in non-profit journalism in the US is an exciting development, it would be unrealistic to expect too much from this model. "Speaking generally, non-profit news strikes me as a little too much like vegetarianism," says Jack Shafer, a highly regarded media commentator. "They're both good for you, but not very exciting and not very likely to be visited for second helpings."

Another interesting development is the greater specialisation of news. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to healthcare policy, recently announced it is to set up a news service to exclusively deal with healthcare policy and politics, a major issue in the US at present which tends to go underreported.

Some of the few news websites to expand in recent months are political websites, such as politico.com and politiker.com.

James Pindell left the Boston Globe - a paper that once featured strong foreign coverage, notably from Northern Ireland but which today has no foreign desk - to help start politicker.com. Pindell describes politicker.com as "an idea that is the manifestation of many media trends: it is entirely online, it is entirely niche (in that we just cover politics), and it fills a space being abandoned by other media (state political news)".

Robert Dailor is a senior editor for a start-up financial news website based at the New York Stock Exchange, 24horaswallstreet.tv. The site provides video reports of financial and business news in Portuguese. Dailor says the specialisation of news services is a growing news trend. "The content of our site is edited by professionals with a background in the financial world. Journalists writing for the business sections of newspapers often take a more general interest approach to their business news reporting."

But it may be premature to predict the end of print just yet. "Let's remember that for all the ills facing print, newspapers are still a $40 billion (€29.9 billion) advertising market," Jack Shafer says. "Obviously this big number is winding down but, with the exception of the movie newsreel, it's hard to think of a media form that simply disappears altogether. What they do is transform over time."

Shafer notes that AM radio, which dominates the US airwaves, had to redefine itself as a talk format when FM challenged it and this is also the challenge facing the print industry. "I'm certain that newspapers will continue to be with us for some time," he says, "although in different forms. Some free, some appealing to a special interest, some distinguishing themselves by their high production values."

Rupert Murdoch agrees. He recently told a radio address for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "Unlike the doom and gloomers, I believe that newspapers will reach new heights in the 21st century. Our real business isn't printing on dead trees. It's giving our readers great journalism and great judgment."

Arianna Huffington, the founder of the hugely popular blog The Huffington Post - which is a rare example of a media organisation in the US that is expanding (see panel) - believes in "a hybrid journalistic future where traditional newspapers adopt the best elements of online journalism, and new media sites continue to do more of the kinds of investigative reporting usually associated only with traditional media outlets".

This idea that content is king is shared by the president and general manager of the New York Times, Scott Heekin-Canedy. "We do not view ourselves as being in the newspaper business, but rather see ourselves as being in the news business," he says. "Quality journalism will survive as long as we continue to meet the news and information needs of our audiences."

Nick Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, makes a distinction between the future of newspapers and the future of news. "News gathering is not in trouble as a social function," he says.

Lemann believes young journalists today who have multimedia skills will be better equipped to deal with the "chaos" the industry is in right now. It's the middle-aged journalists who should be concerned, he says.

The dean's words should be of some comfort to young journalists like Andrew Nusca. He didn't stay unemployed long. Hi blog, entitled "Diary of an unemployed young journalist: an open letter to entry-level journalism jobs everywhere", attracted such attention, it helped land him a job with a website.

BUCKING THE TREND

ALTHOUGH MEDIA organisations of all descriptions and sizes have been hurting in the US in recent months, some have been expanding. Here are four examples:

BLOOMBERG NEWS

With an editorial staff of 2,300, in 142 bureaus, Bloomberg News employs more journalists than the Washington Post and the New York Times combined. As a recent profile of the news organisation in Vanity Fair put it, "Bloomberg has not so much been bucking the industry-wide trend toward contractions as obliterating it." Unlike most print outlets that make money from single-copy sales, subscriptions, and advertising, Bloomberg relies almost entirely on subscriptions to its terminals, which can cost up to $1,800 (€1,358) per month.

SLATE

The current affairs and culture magazine was founded in 1996 as a web-only enterprise. Read by around 6.7 million online adults a month, Slate is part of The Washington Post Company group, and publishes provocative commentary on topics such as politics, culture, business and technology. Last September, Slate broke its traffic records with over 87 million page views, a 41 per cent increase over September 2007. According to editor David Plotz, September, October and November were the three best traffic months in Slate's history, by far.

THE HUFFINGTON POST

A poll in the Observer placed left-leaning blog the Huffington Post in the No 1 spot of the world's 50 most powerful blogs. Technorati, the online blog search engine, has recently ranked the HuffPost as the most linked-to site.

"Paradoxically, in these days of instant communication and 60-minute news cycles, it's actually easier to miss information we might otherwise pay attention to, " says Arianna Huffington. "That's why we need stories to be covered and re-covered, again and again - until they filter up enough to become part of the cultural bloodstream. That's what we try to do at HuffPost: cover important stories in an obsessive way that enables them to break through the din of our multimedia universe."

POLITICKER.COM

Part of the Observer Media Group, Politicker, like its rivals Politico and RealClearPolitics, has enjoyed an exciting US presidential election where it's been fashionable to become a political anorak. Politicker is setting out to establish 50 state-based political news websites, with the central website acting as the hub - so far, it has launched 16 additional sites. According to editor James Pindell, it is "highly profitable, not only because of the low overheads, but also because our advertisers can reach their influential audience cheaper and more targeted than they can in other mass media".