Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BAD NEWS....Via Eric Alterman, Pew reports on the changing face of the American newspaper:

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

The crossword puzzle has shrunk? Seriously? That saves 'em — what? Two or three square inches?

Anyway, the whole thing is here. Bottom line: coverage of foreign news, national news, business news, and science news is plummeting. Education, crime, sports, and obituaries (!) are up. "In effect, America's newspapers are narrowing their reach and their ambitions and becoming niche reads." I continue to think that this is a more dire development than most of my fellow blog denizens do — though Eric himself is, if anything, even more alarmed at what's happening than me. He also notes acidly that in the current frenzy of cost cutting at America's newspapers, "Virtually the only expense still intact is executive pay. On the Recovering Journalist blog, Mark Potts notes that the average compensation among the thirteen public-company newspaper CEOs was just under $6 million a year in 2007, according to corporate proxy filings with the SEC. These figures, one can only conclude, are entirely unrelated to performance." You got a problem with that?

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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Comments

Why is thinner paper stock a problem? It has no effect on the information that's printed on it and other things being equal, it conserves resources.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 22, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

"On the Recovering Journalist blog, Mark Potts notes that the average compensation among the thirteen public-company newspaper CEOs was just under $6 million a year in 2007, according to corporate proxy filings with the SEC."

That's not nearly as bad as I would have guessed. By the standards of a lot of industries that's impressively frugal.

yeah, I know. Low standard to meet and all that.

Posted by: Tlaloc on July 22, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, I like reading the newspaper, but where is it chipped in stone that the "newspaper as we know/knew it" is forever? When newspapers began, I believe in the 18th century, they were not the same -- not in most respects, anyway -- as the newspapers I grew up with, whose passing (or at least downsizing) Alterman and Kevin are bemoaning. So what if newspapers are getting smaller? So what if their focus is changing? Some other medium will pick up the slack, if there is any interest in stuff that newspapers are no longer doing. Evolution.

Posted by: Bob on July 22, 2008 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

The shrinking of the crossword puzzle is all Will Shortz's fault because he has gotten us addicted to Sudoku.

Posted by: optical weenie on July 22, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Now newspapers are for the Dinette Set.

Posted by: Neil B. on July 22, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

I don't understand what local "full service" papers do anymore.

Here, there are half a dozen neighborhood weekly papers devoted to local issues. There are broadsheets devoted to selling cars and announcing things like yard sales. Puppy mills put up ads on grocery store message boards. People get all the sports news they need from the internet.

That leaves obits, legal ads and phony controversies.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on July 22, 2008 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

You hit on an important piece when you said the only thing thathasn't shrunk is executive pay. This is the case i all cost cutting measures no matter what the industry/company. Executives which to continue to reap millions while, in my humble opinion, driving the company to either bare bones, elimination or outsourcing jobs overseas. There is nothing in it for the American worker as a whole. It's time for executive pay to be riened in.

Posted by: del on July 22, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

You hit on an important piece when you said the only thing thathasn't shrunk is executive pay. This is the case i all cost cutting measures no matter what the industry/company. Executives which to continue to reap millions while, in my humble opinion, driving the company to either bare bones, elimination or outsourcing jobs overseas. There is nothing in it for the American worker as a whole. It's time for executive pay to be riened in.

Posted by: bob on July 22, 2008 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Parrot and parakeet owners are getting nervous.

Posted by: Luther on July 22, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

"obituaries (!)"

Obits are a profit center: papers charge the grieving family to run them. I know several people around here who have refused to run a relative's obituary because they had moral objections to this new approach.

Posted by: Altoid on July 22, 2008 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

As a newspaper editor at my day job (suburban Dallas weekly), I offer several thoughts, partially from stuff edited from two comments to Kevin’s LAT book section post below.

Thinner papers? Newspapers, like TV, have made the call that people want less international hard news, especially. It’s not just paper thickness; more and more big dailies have closed more bureaus, either U.S. Department-specific ones in DC or international bureaus.

Newspapers join TV in cutting science news, and the other stuff Kevin lists as well.

So, a number of Pew observations aren’t newspaper-specific, but go a variety of “traditional” news media.

Thinner page stock? Well, if a post-Kyoto treaty is ever adopted, tree-cutting could have a huge carbon tax on it. You think you’ve got thin newspapers on cheap stock now…

Sports is up? Think back to 2,000 years ago. “Bread and circuses.”

As far as overall paper struggles, remember Cali papers are getting kicked in the 'nads by the real estate collapse. Foreclosures tend not to generate a lot of ads. While a lot of big dailies are struggling, California and South Fla. papers are struggling more.

Other issues? Re Craigslist, it's actually hurt alt-weeklies more than seven-day dailies? Why? Craig's runs the more "racy" personals ads, etc., that used to be gravy for alt-weeklies because dailies wouldn't touch them.

Next? Look for Craig's to try to get official legal notices by local governments wrestled away from print newspapers.

As far as revenue stream, the traditional paid-subscription seven-day daily is about 80/20 on ads vs. circulation. That said, though, especially for national accounts, you have to have your circ numbers up to boost your rates for retail ads.

One more item on newspapers as a business enterprise.

Newspapers have traditionally generated profit margins as much as 30 percent at major dailies. It’s not that they’re unprofitable now, just that they’ve become less profitable, and in many cases, one-quarter to one-third less profitable.

But, your corner grocer would love even a 15 percent return.

Bottom line? Community newspapers in conservative rural white America may have the best future.

Posted by: on July 22, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

Responses to a few comments on this thread:

Secular Animist The thinner the paper, the more likely you are to get breaks in the web when you are running rolls of paper through the press.

Unless you’ve actually seen a web press, I’m not sure of how to explain it better.

Bob — Maybe nobody will. And, if they do, the increasing balkanization of the news market could have broader social implications.

Altoid — Yes, in a bigger daily, even a relatively short obit, without pic, can run around 300 bucks.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 22, 2008 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

Much like CEOs in the banking industry, who somehow, despite being able to legally charge interest rates of as much as 30% on credit cards and operate a mortgage system entirely tilted in their favor, still are able to lose literally billions of dollars and see no change in their tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars a year personal paychecks. Hell of a system!!!!

Posted by: dweb on July 22, 2008 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK
I continue to think that this is a more dire development than most of my fellow blog denizens do — though Eric himself is, if anything, even more alarmed at what's happening than me.

It would be a dire development if people still read newspapers for news; OTOH, if people still read newspapers for news, it wouldn't be happening.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 22, 2008 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

WARNING: LONG POST AHEAD!

I'm gonna have to go against the grain a bit on this issue and say papers are going to have to re-focus their efforts if they want to survive, and here's why:

The Internet makes getting international news easy, quick and varied. I don't need some intern from the AP to give me one paragraph on Zimbabwe's elections -- I can go online and find thousands of words that go in-depth. There just isn't an American paper that can get the stories reporters who live in a given area can provide -- at least, not at a decent cost.

Science is similar -- one can hop online and get a bevy of info from real experts, not a journalist who get the beat because he aced his college biology class.

Politics are the same -- there is countless info out there from tens of thousands of sources.

So, it seems that for local papers (say, the size of the Kansas City Star or smaller) it's best for them to go hyper-local and focus primarily on regional issues. They're probably the only big paper in town, and can focus resources on issues and stories that have a more direct impact on people's lives.

Yes, I'd love for every mid-sized city to have a paper with the extensive coverage of a NYT or WaPo. But it will never happen again. Ever. It just can't economically, nor can it do so in a way that attracts enough new subscribers to make it worthwhile.

So I say let there be several big papers that cover it all (again, NYT, et al), let online sources cover their niche (science, foregin, etc.), and let local papers focus their efforts locally.

I think it'll work for one key reason: Information consumers are no longer passive, just waiting for the paperboy to chuck the morning edition on their doorsteps. They are active, going out and seeking the information they are interested in reading/watching/hearing. Thus, there is no reason for papers to worry about doing everything -- instead, they should focus on what they know best, and let others do the same.

Posted by: Mark D on July 22, 2008 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, I'd love for every mid-sized city to have a paper with the extensive coverage of a NYT or WaPo. But it will never happen again. Ever. It just can't economically, nor can it do so in a way that attracts enough new subscribers to make it worthwhile.
So I say let there be several big papers that cover it all (again, NYT, et al), let online sources cover their niche (science, foregin, etc.), and let local papers focus their efforts locally.

I think that would be fine, if there were some evidence that the handful of major papers (the NYT, the WaPo, the LAT, etc.) were holding the line. But they aren't.

I don't have a problem if the Charlotte Observer isn't doing much of its own national news coverage, and has farmed out its international news to the AP. Less redundant coverage doesn't bother me. But it seems that we're getting less coverage, period.

And I don't see who's going to pick up the slack anytime soon. Blogs occasionally break a nstional story, but it's infrequent: mostly they elevate the visibility of stories the papers cover in passing, but bury in the back pages. And who's doing international news at all?

We're a long way, yet, from having a new news medium that will replace the old as it weakens. That's why, contra Brad DeLong, the major metro dailies aren't in anything resembling a death spiral.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on July 22, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

Not to mention that the actual sheets themselves are smaller, and (to me at least) the print looks larger.

I used to read the newspaper all the time. I grew up in Northern Virginia during Watergate, and read the post. Every time I moved, the first thing I did was order the paper.

I haven't subscribed to a newspaper in 5 years. The national and international coverage sucks, the comics have shrunk to microscopic proportions, the level and quality of the writing seems to have devolved, and there are rarely if ever things like book reviews (and if there are, they're for books that everyone *else* is reviewing already). I get my news off the Web.

The cost-cutting at newspapers leads to lower quality, which leads to fewer readers, which leads to cost-cutting. I think newspapers have already gone over the event horizon.

Posted by: Douglas Moran on July 22, 2008 at 7:23 PM | PERMALINK

And yet papers like the WaPo and the NYTimes still devote a whole page to opinons from supposed experts and talking heads. I would rather better news and less opining.

Posted by: ET on July 22, 2008 at 8:23 PM | PERMALINK

CMDicely has an excellent point. The interest of Americans in news peaked, oh, about .... 1945.

Maybe it took "surges," pun intended, in about 1973 and 1979.

Mark D, beg to differ. Who's going to give you that Zimbabwe coverage? Right now, even if it's online, it's still most likely coming from a traditional news outfit.

Douglas Moran They are smaller. A number of years ago, papers went from a 55-inch "web" (the broadsheet width, unfolded) to a 50-inch web.

In the last 12-18 months, more and more papers have cut again, to a 48-inch web.

CEO pay aside, paper prices are going up.

You may be right about going over the event horizon.

That's because, in many cases, the business model is wrong, more than the news model.

IMO, the Guardian has an excellent counterexample.

The paper is run by an incorporated nonprofit organzation.

Here in the US, though, increasingly, the rich and the liberals in the rich, liberal media never meet.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 22, 2008 at 9:29 PM | PERMALINK

What should have happened is national papers with local editions to both take advantage of scale of operation and new technology. (and not USA today)

Posted by: YY on July 24, 2008 at 6:20 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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