Future of print media remains on the brink

Closure of major dailies causes worry

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

The news came down on Feb. 25 " just 56 days short of The Rocky Mountain News’ 150th birthday. The next day, the storied Denver newspaper would publish its final edition.

“You all did everything right, but while you were doing your part, the business model and the economy changed " and The Rocky became a victim of that,” Rich Boehne, president and chief executive officer of The Rocky’s parent company, E. W. Scripps, told a sombre remorseful newsroom.

After the announcement, John Temple, The Rocky’s suddenly former Editor-in-Chief, publisher and president, was given the unenviable task of addressing the media.

“People [in the newsroom] are in grief and they’re very upset,” a visibly shaken Temple said. “They’re trying to process all the emotions that go with it and recognizing that we’re putting out our final edition tomorrow. It’s very difficult.”

Now, three weeks later and speaking from his home in Denver, Temple admitted that he had come to terms with the death of The Rocky, but stressed the important lessons to be learned from the paper’s untimely demise.

“There is no guarantee of success " just by being there today doesn’t mean you’re going to be there tomorrow. It’s extremely imperative for the leaders and employees of news organizations to realize that there is no God given right to their presence,” the Vancouver native said.

The Rocky was a victim of a dated, archaic business model: its resources spread too far while advertising revenue plummeted and readership declined. Unfortunately, their situation is not unique.

Earlier this week The Seattle Post-Intelligencer " just 146 years old " published its final print edition with the headline: “You’ve meant the world to us.”

According to an article printed in Time Magazine earlier this month, many former newspaper titans " including The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News " are on their deathbeds.

In Canada, however, the outlook is slightly brighter, on account of the fact that the majority of Canadian media is owned by just a handful of companies.

“Major national companies like Canwest and [CTVglobemedia] stretch across the country and have the ability to leverage some of their resources from coast to coast in a very economical way,” Temple said.

However, the clock is still ticking on Canadian dailies that have had to make significant changes in order to stay above water.

Several in the industry have speculated that it’s only a matter of time before Sun Media Corporation " which owns a crop of flagship papers in the Canada’s biggest metropolises as well as a handful of smaller publications sprinkled throughout the country " could soon be shutting the doors at some of its small town papers.

According to Paul Berton, Editor-in-Chief of The London Free Press " one of Sun Media’s larger newspaper properties " closings should be expected.

“I don’t think The London Free Press is in any danger of going under anytime soon,” Berton stated defiantly in an e-mail. “I think other papers are on less solid ground financially and closings are inevitable.”

The Free Press " much like other papers who have contracted their newsrooms significantly " has made sweeping changes to the way it does business, including cutting staff and relying more on content from their sister papers under Sun Media.

“We can’t afford to do business the way we have in the past,” Berton said. “We need to invest more in our electronic products, so we need to streamline the printed version.”

The Globe and Mail has also made sweeping cuts to its newsroom, laying off or buying out a number of employees since the beginning of the year. The paper isn’t saying exactly how many employees have been let go, but several sources put the number at close to 90, including Roy MacGregor " a columnist who has worked at The Globe since 2002.

“People are terribly worried about their job security " they’re panicking about it,” MacGregor said from his home office in Ottawa. “Even the most seasoned journalist could end up without a job. I’ve known people who have been laid off that were superb journalists.”

MacGregor has been in newsrooms for over 30 years, working for the National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Star. He has never seen it as bad as this.

“Everybody in the business is in a panic because they don’t know where the business is going or if they’re even will be a business tomorrow,” MacGregor said.

Newspapers have been on the decline for years since content became readily available on the Internet. At first, media ownership thought the decline was steady and they had time to battle through it. However, when the economic crisis hit late last year, the decline accelerated exponentially.

“The economic crisis really created a perfect storm,” Temple said. “That’s what precipitated the closure of The Rocky. It’s a double whammy that most businesses cannot endure.”

Berton agreed, adding that once a newspaper begins bleeding money, it is next to impossible to stop it.

The paradox for newspapers is that news content is currently in its highest demand ever.

According to Berton, the Free Press’ website receives 200,000 unique views per month " a number that is surely dwarfed by national newspapers and those south of the border.

If only consumers were paying for all that content.

Conventional thinking would point the finger at newspapers for consumers’ reluctance to pay for content " after all, they were the ones who put their product on the Internet for free in the first place.

Not so, according to Temple.

“The idea that ‘Oh, if we powerful newspaper people only would have charged for our great content, everything would be better and we wouldn’t be in this great mess right now’ is total baloney … It’s wishful thinking and it shows a lack of understanding of the web,” Temple said.

“Consumers are right. Even if newspapers had charged for content when they first went on the web, somebody would have gotten around that. Someone else would have put the content up and you would end up with a situation like the music industry had with Napster. This way, we control the content.”

Berton agreed, suggesting the Free Press is making a modest profit off of its online operations.

“There are many ways to leverage our electronic information and get readers to pay for it,” Berton argued. “[Consumers] may not want to pay for breaking news, but our archives are deep and rich, and they are already a source of revenue.”

Perhaps the most troublesome outcome of the systematic shrinking of newsrooms across the board will be a dip in the overall quality of journalism. The math is simple: every time a reporter is laid off, there is one less pair of eyes and ears paying attention to city councils, compiling police arrest records and searching through logs of government documents.

“There’s no question that the contraction of newsrooms will lead to a decline in the quality of news reporting,” Temple admitted. “When you’re losing papers you’re in danger of losing that watchdog role.”

MacGregor concurred, predicting that any sort of investigative journalism would quickly become a thing of the past.

“Investigative work is very expensive and labour intensive and that’s the first thing that newspapers will cut,” MacGregor said. “It’s a tragedy because the public will be kept in the dark " we never would have found out about Watergate if it wasn’t for investigative journalism.”

So how do you stop the bleeding? A number of solutions to the newspaper crisis have been levied, including running newspapers as non-profit charity organizations and initiating an online micro-payment system similar to iTunes.

The most promising advancement has been the Kindle " an electronic reader sold by Amazon that allows a user to download magazines and newspapers for a marginal price.

The Kindle is not currently available in Canada " a carrier like Bell or Rogers hasn’t picked it up as of yet " however, it has the thumbs up from some of the industry’s most influential figures, including Temple.

“I bought one. I think it’s really a cool device and I love how quickly it downloads.”

Whether people carry around every publication in the world in their pockets or not, the overwhelming consensus seems to be that there will always be a place for journalism " if not necessarily newspapers.

“Newspapers may be in decline, but the newsgathering business is alive and well,” Berton said. “Perhaps more-so than ever before.”

“I think that proper and well-trained reporting is going to become a priority in the years to come,” MacGregor said.

“Journalism will survive, I truly believe that.”

  • 16 million dollars the Rocky Mountain News lost last year
  • 67.3 millions of unique visitors to print newspapers’ websites in 2008
  • 26.2 per cent newspaper ad sales are projected to drop by the end of 2009
  • 39 per cent of their market value that publicly traded newspaper publishers have collectively lost since Jan. 1
  • Source: Newspaper Association of America

Share this article on:

Facebook | DiggDigg |

Copyright © 2008 The Gazette