US newspapers need to adapt in order to survive

 

We should be very worried by the decline of the US newspaper industry, writes JAMES DORANin New York.

THE WHISTLING paperboy speeding down the street on his bicycle, merrily flinging rolled up newspapers into front yards, is fast disappearing from the American suburban landscape.

It is not that he has been outsourced to China, like so many other quintessentially American jobs, but rather he would be hard pressed in many towns to find a rolled up newspaper to fling.

American newspaper publishers are in dire straights. The list of bankruptcies, closings, collapses and redundancies from the smallest local rags to the biggest metropolitan and regional titles grows each week like dispatches from Gettysburg.

US industry estimates put print advertising revenue losses at $11 billion (€8.34 billion) for 2008.

What is more, analysts believe this crucial yardstick, which accounts for 70 per cent to 80 per cent of industry takings in America, has declined by a further 60 per cent since the start of 2009, mostly because of the declining economy but also because of advertisers moving away from print to the internet.

Meanwhile, total paid circulation for newspapers in America has fallen to 51 million from about 60 million a decade ago while readership of newspaper-owned web sites has more than doubled since 2004, hitting 3.7 billion page views a month in January.

It is this confluence of declining revenue at every level that has led to the biggest cuts in newspaper history. The Seattle Post Intelligencerstopped the presses after 145 years last month to go entirely digital while the Ann Arbor Newsin Michigan announced it would do so in July. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain Newsclosed entirely, just weeks short of its 150th anniversary. The Detroit Free Presshas come up with an alternative strategy of only offering home delivery three days a week – there goes the paper boy – while selling editions every day at news stands.

The owner of The Chicago Sun-Timesfiled for bankruptcy protection at the end of March with the chilling prediction that it expects advertising revenue to plummet a further 30 per cent this year.

In December, the Tribunecompany, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Timesand several other big papers, went into bankruptcy too.

Since then, Star Tribune Holdings of Minneapolis; Philadelphia Newspapers, publisher of that city’s two major papers; and the Journal Register Company, owner of the New Haven Registerand many smaller papers, have done the same. And those that have not filed for Chapter 11 are cutting jobs in huge numbers every week.

Erica Smith, a graphic designer, started a weblog in April 2008 called Paper Cuts. In it she chronicles newspaper job cuts and closures, illustrating her findings with different coloured virtual pins on an online map of the United States. Smith estimates that more than 20,000 newspaper jobs have disappeared since the beginning of 2008, meaning about 4,000 have been lost in the first three months of this year alone.

Some of her recent findings include the Atlanta Journal-Constitutioncutting its full-time news staff by about 90 people, or nearly 30 per cent.

McClatchy, publisher of 30 daily newspapers including the Miami Herald, Sacramento Beeand Anchorage Daily News, is to cut 1,600 jobs, or about 15 per cent of its workforce, and cut the pay of its top executives. McClatchy has been cutting costs to meet heavy debt payments from its purchase of newspaper chain Knight Ridder in 2006. Those journalists left at their desks face pay cuts, reduced holiday time, furloughs and all manner of other reductions in earnings.

Gannett, America’s largest newspaper company and owner of USA Today, has forced most staff to take unpaid furloughs this year.

Advance, publisher of papers such as the Star-Ledgerin Newark New Jersey, the New Orleans Times-Picayuneand the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is to impose a 10-day furlough on its entire workforce and freeze pensions.

Even venerable stalwarts such as the Washington Post, The New York Timesand The Boston Globeare not immune. The Washington Postis offering redundancies, the New York Timessaid it would impose a temporary 5 per cent pay cut on most employees while it told the Boston Globe, which it owns, that workers must agree to big cuts or face closure.

But all of this depressing news for this industry goes far beyond how the decline of newspapers effects people who make their livings writing, editing, advertising in and selling newspapers. It goes even further beyond those of us who read newspapers.

The decline of the newspaper industry could inflict serious damage on communities, especially smaller towns and villages that have relied upon good local papers to inform them about and to publicise local politics and local events. Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, a Princeton University assistant professor of economics and public affairs, looked at communities affected by the closing of the Cincinnati Postat the end of 2007.

The study surveyed 27,000 subscribers in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. Despite the relatively small sample, the study found that in the towns the Post regularly covered, voter turnout dropped, fewer people ran for office and more incumbents were re-elected after the paper closed.That is, when there were fewer stories about a given town, its inhabitants seemed to care less about local affairs.

Despite all this terrible news, there are still hopes the American newspaper industry will continue to adapt and survive. But first it must learn how to exploit new technology effectively to service advertisers and readers in the way it has done for hundreds of years.