Journalism

Local newspapers: fewer reporters = less content = declining revenue

Corporate owners treat news as “product.” As a result, the industry is on life support.

by Patrick Vecchio

I can’t remember how young I was when I fell in love with my local newspaper. It started with a comic strip: Mandrake the Magician. I would wait on our front porch for the newspaper boy, spread the paper on the floor and read Mandrake on my hands and knees. As I grew older, my interest expanded to different sections of the paper. By the time I reached high school, I was reading it from front to back. I loved it.

I never left my hometown, and after studying journalism in college, I began working as a reporter at a tiny daily newspaper about 20 miles away. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Journalism

Pew study: Newspapers’ hard times continue

Shocked! Shocked we should be! But the latest report on the State of the Media by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism comes as no surprise. The bottom line: Fewer resources equals compromised journalism. From a PEJ press release summarizing the 2013 report‘s overview:

The report pinpoints multiple signs of shrinking reporting power. For newspapers, estimates for newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put industry employment down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 employees for the first time since 1978. On local television, where audiences were down across every key time slot in 2012, news stories have shrunk in length, and, compared with 2005, coverage of government has been cut in half and sports, weather and traffic now account for 40% of the content. On cable, coverage of live events during the day, which often requires a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012, while interview segments were up 31%. And among news magazines, the end of Newsweek’s print edition coincided with another round of staff cuts, and Time, the only general news print magazine left, announced cuts of roughly 5% in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs. [For a quick look at the Pew findings, view its infographic overview]

The drop in newsroom employment has fallen precipitiously, particularly since 2007. That’s not news to S&R’s regular readers, as that’s been a principal topic of discussion here over the years. S&R has covered the reasons behind the firings (yep, “layoffs” is too soft a word for canning a pro) and posited on the consequences of a depleted journalism workforce. (See here, here, here, and here.)

The root cause? Loss of revenue. As the graphic below shows, print ad revenue is down dramatically (at 45 percent of 2006 revenues). Digital ad revenue is increasing, but at a far slower rate than print revenue is falling.

And now, Pew research has detailed the decline of journalistic expertise and ability.

This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.[emphasis added]

Pew placed particular emphasis on the one of 2012’s most significant stories — the most recent U.S. elections. Journalists underperformed, argues Pew:

So far, this trend has emerged most clearly in the political sphere, particularly with the biggest story of 2012—the presidential election. A Pew Research Center analysis revealed that campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans. That meant more direct relaying of assertions made by the campaigns and less reporting by journalists to interpret and contextualize them. This is summarized in our special video report on our Election Research, only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans. That is a reversal from a dozen years earlier when half the statements originated with journalists and a third came from partisans. The campaigns also found more ways than ever to connect directly with citizens.

Sadly, reports Pew, 60 percent of Americans have heard little, or nothing, about the news industry’s financial reversals. But a third of Americans know when they’re not getting what they used to: Pew reports that 31 percent of Americans have fled a particular news outlet because it no longer provides readers or viewers what it once did.

That’s particularly disturbing. A third of Americans, if you have faith in Pew’s arithmetic, seek new sources of information, particularly news. Sure, digital media offer those Americans choices — but how will they assess the quality and credibility of those sources? If information seekers flee to news aggregation sites, where the hell (with a few exceptions) do they think those aggregated stories originated?

And the blogs? How will the credibility of millions of blogs, many, if not most, operated and populated by untrained volunteers (or wing nuts with large chips on their shoulders), be assessed?

Good sources of reliable, credible information exist. Most are newspapers or originated with newspapers’ materials. Some are operated by foundations or Kickstarted into existence.

Newspaper circulation has begun to recover (or at least not decline further). But 44 million papers sold daily is a far cry from nearly 60 million in the early ’90s at the dawn of the World Wide Web. Those 16 million readers aren’t returning. (Many are dead, of course; newspaper circulation skews more older than younger these days.)

Is there hope that newspapers will survive long enough to return to some form of prosperity (defined either as financially healthy or journalistically sound)?

Rick Edmonds, a longtime newspaper analyst at The Poynter Institute, suggests the news industry is not dead despite its myriad problems.

Newspapers’ fortunes, admittedly from a rock-bottom base, have been looking up lately — Warren Buffett and others have bought papers, digital pay plans are boosting circulation revenue, and new lines of business like digital marketing services are taking root.

After wisely noting the “continued erosion of resources” in the industry, Edmonds offers this counsel:

  • Be present on the mobile platforms where news consumers are headed. Try, try again on advertising or related revenue possibilities. Find money to support development of new apps and experimentation, but pace the spending since today’s hot technology yields quickly to tomorrow’s.
  • Get reader/users to pay a share. Digital subscriptions and print + digital bundles have been the industry’s biggest success story of the last several years. The report found that 33 percent of the country’s 1,380 dailies “have started or announced plans for some kind of paid content subscription or paywall plan.” Of course, a corollary to asking readers to pay is giving them a news report that’s worth it in an era where free options are abundant.
  • Continue to develop “other” efforts — digital marketing, events, contract printing and sponsored content. And measure it — first indicators are that newspapers may be covering as much as half their print ad losses with circulation revenue increases and income from these new ventures.
  • As the new business models become established, focus on the net income they generate. Halting, or at least slowing revenue declines, has been the first order of business. However, New York Times Co. executive James Follo raised the relevant caution late last year: the margin on new circulation revenue and other activities may not be nearly as good as on selling more print advertising. [emphasis in original]

That’s good advice. Readers — and those who need information — should hope it’s not too little, too late.

The Des Moines Register's presidential endorsement is short-sighted and shallow; Iowa deserves better journalism

by Andrea Frantz

My husband and I, Iowa natives both, recently returned to our home state after 14 years in Pennsylvania. There were many things to look forward to as we anticipated our move home, not the least of which was the fact that we have long deemed Iowa an independent-minded state both socially and politically.

I am proud of the fact that I was raised in the state whose Supreme Court ruled against racially segregated schools more than 80 years before the Federal Supreme Court would do the same. In the same vein, Iowa was the nation’s leader to ensure its public schools were co-educational, guaranteeing that women could have the same opportunities for education that men had so long enjoyed. And I celebrated its forward-thinking attitude when it became the fifth state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

We also looked forward to returning to Iowa’s long tradition of excellence in journalism and the Des Moines Register.

I was not surprised by the Register‘s endorsement of Mitt Romney last night. I saw it coming by drips and drabs in its coverage of both candidates, though it was perhaps clearest last week when I saw the blatant difference in tone in the side by side campaign “news coverage” on its front page. While the lead on the article focused on Obama was long-winded and struck a negative tone focusing on how his campaign had stepped up criticism against Romney, the lead in the Romney article was pithy and clear where the Register was leaning: “This must be what momentum looks like.” Hm. So much for objective news coverage.

While the Register‘s editorial board points to the state of the economy and jobs as the key drivers behind its endorsement, there is little in the way of specifics in this piece to support the choice. Not unlike Mr. Romney’s campaign, the endorsement offers no specific economic policies, plans, or achievements that illustrate how he is better suited to lead our country further out of the mire created by the Bush administration. This surface treatment of an exceptionally important issue does a disservice to your readers and ensures that political conversation in Iowa remains the consistency and nutritional value of a flaky, sugary pastry a la Pella’s famous Dutch letters. While sweet and perhaps a temporary energy fix, there’s nothing sustainable. Needless to say, I was looking forward to more meat and potatoes upon my return to the state. A little protein please, Des Moines Register.

Last, while the economy should, in fact, be a leading criterion for this Presidential choice, I am stunned by the fact that the Register ignores foreign policy, women’s health and reproductive rights, immigration, education, energy and the environment in its endorsement. All of these things are, in fact, drivers of economic stability and President Obama has a proven record and well-articulated vision with them. Mitt Romney has stated for the record he will boost funding to our military and aggressively engage Iran and China while simultaneously cutting funding to Planned Parenthood and federal pell grants. This is the “fresh economic vision” you herald?

For a newspaper that purports to serve Iowans equally, your endorsement falls short of the progressive, nuanced understanding of Iowans’ needs that I had so looked forward to upon my return to this state. Your endorsement is short-sighted and shallow both politically and as a journalistic contribution to the larger discussion. We deserve more.

Andrea Frantz is a journalism professor who still has faith in the future of the field…though some days, that faith is tested more than others.

Newspaper ownership shifting, says Pew; better days ahead? Nope.

Those grad students in the business of writing dissertations about media and newspapers now have an old topic with a new twist: Who owns the media now? Critic Ben Bagdikian, author of six editions of “The Media Monopoly,” traced ownership of America’s media through decades of consolidation. In a PBS interview at the end of the last century, he said:

[T]he media is increasingly owned by a few very large multinational corporations. By the media, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, television and radio. This is growing.

And the consequence of this? Continue reading

Where, oh where, have the readers gone? Oh where, oh where can they be?

Finding a word or phrase that describes the journalism industry today is not that difficult. Since 2007, contraction — some big newspapers folded and suits fired tens of thousands of journalists — describes well the process. The result? A free fall to obscurity, a corporate-led collapse into irrelevance fit. But are industry leaders paying attention to the attendant contraction in the industry’s former print audience?

The history is clear: Newspapers wrongly did not recognize the Internet as a viable threat to its news and advertising franchises. Ad revenues fell dramatically, much lost to the Internet. Suits cut costs. At some southeastern U.S. papers, people losing jobs this week include serious, experienced, and award-winning journalists (an example). Hundreds of jobs will be lost as managers of The Times-Picayune, The Birmingham News, and The Huntsville Times shift focus and financial outlook from print to Web.

Next cost target: Newsprint. Newspapers have reduced the number of days on which they actually print newspapers. The most visible of these over the past week have been at Advance Publications-owned newspapers in New Orleans and Alabama. (Advance, a private company, is owned by the Newhouse family.) Want to lose a print reader? Don’t give her a paper to read.

Why is such severe contraction necessary if it reduces the quality and quantity of the product sold? Continue reading

Pew study missing a notion: What is the impact of quality on newspaper loyalty?

Pew reports this:

Nearly three quarters (72%) of adults are quite attached to following local news and information, and local newspapers are by far the source they rely on for much of the local information they need. In fact, local news enthusiasts are substantially more wedded to their local newspapers than others. They are much more likely than others to say that if their local newspaper vanished, it would have a major impact on their ability to get the local information they want. This is especially true of local news followers age 40 and older …

Then Steve Myers at Poynter says this:

The report goes on to say that 32 percent of these people say the disappearance of their local paper would have a major impact on their lives. Among people who aren’t that interested in local news, about half say their lives wouldn’t change at all if they didn’t have a local paper. Good, for newspapers, right?

But look at it another way: That means 68 percent of local news enthusiasts don’t believe the disappearance of their local paper would affect their lives in a major way. And 34 percent of such enthusiasts say the disappearance wouldn’t affect their lives at all.

But neither addresses how the quality of the local newspaper might affect these statistics of who would feel an impact and who would not if the local paper folded.
Continue reading

Print ad revenues: Even a rock doesn't fall this fast

Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, cuts to the chase in his lede:

Call it creative if you want, but this is what economic destruction looks like. Print newspaper ads have fallen by two-thirds from $60 billion in the late-1990s to $20 billion in 2011.

“This” is a graph in a post by Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan.

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Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

Jaycee's story more important than tracking Casey Anthony

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Where in the world is Casey Anthony?

I don’t know, and I don’t care, and I think the media pursuit and frenzy over this question is both bizarre and foolish. Her parents care, and that’s appropriate. Likely the plaintiffs in the various lawsuits care because they have to serve her under the court rules. But the media frenzy, with more than likely a number of blank checks ready to be written, hurts journalism as a profession.

In stark contrast to the Anthony is kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard. What an amazing woman, she’s a true profile in courage and grace. She went through 18 years of hell, captured by a pedophile and his sidekick–his equally sicko wife. Diane Sawyer’s ABC interview was probing and often disturbing as Jaycee calmly related the day to day horrors of her existence during her imprisonment. ABC paid for her story, and likely People did, too. Continue reading

A morality play: When Rupert Murdoch entered Parliament

Any morality play has its set-piece characters. The villain, the outraged public, the crusading representatives of order.

Democracy in the UK is very tactile. Parliament is the voice and instrument of the people. Anyone, no matter how powerful, can be summoned to answer questions before the people. These performances can destroy careers and reputations but are an adjunct to the more dull and complex process of police investigations, judicial review and eventual judgement. They permit the public to see their anger expressed.

Rupert Murdoch’s role before his questioning was clear: he is the villain of this set-piece. He was there to be a subject of the collective outrage of British society and to hold himself to account.

Yet you don’t get to be an 80-year-old media tycoon without understanding that a story is made in the telling. Continue reading

Murdochgate redux

There have been any number of further developments since our last post, and this shows signs of accelerating to the point of being out of Murdoch’s control entirely. Well, let’s face it—in the UK, it pretty much is. Rebekah Brooks resigned on Friday, and was arrested on Sunday. Murdoch’s long time deputy Les Hinton, who ran News International at the time of peak phone hacking, and more recently ran Dow Jones for Murdoch, also resigned. Brooks’s arrest means her testimony to Parliament tomorrow may be compromised—how convenient for someone, maybe the police?

Let’s not forget that in all the unseemly haste to somehow pin this all on PM David Cameron (of whom I am not a fan, by the way, but still), that all of this pretty much happened while Labour was in power, and Labour pretty much did nothing. And that the Metropolitan Police force has been deeply compromised, as evidence by the head of the MPC, Paul Stephenson, resigning yesterday. And the Assistant Commissioner, John Yates, resigning today. Continue reading

Hold Rupert Murdoch to account. But go no further.

A goodly number of Murdoch’s newspapers run at a loss.  This isn’t because he’s a bad businessman, it’s because of the industry.  His competitors are doing worse.

However, Murdoch loves newspapers and news.  Whatever else his failings, it’s rare to have a newspaper owner who actually loves the medium.  So even though these companies lose money for him (and, in revenue terms, are a tiny proportion of an empire that is mainly about entertainment and media) he keeps them alive and well financed.

Say that the clusterfuck over the infractions of a small number of his newspapers (assuming this goes beyond just News of the World) results in him divesting of news entirely.  Firstly, who’d buy them?  Secondly, what happens if this leads to the final destruction of actual daily newspapers?  Continue reading

EXCLUSIVE: S&R obtains copy of Rupert Murdoch's original, unedited apology

News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch has issued a public apology for the News of the World scandal, which appears in several British national newspapers this weekend. The final text is available here.

For those unfamiliar with the exciting world of public relations, these kinds of official statements often go through a rigorous process of draft, revision, review, more revision, show it to legal, start over, and finally approval by the person whose name appears at the bottom. S&R has obtained a copy of Murdoch’s original draft and the redline revision produced by Edelman, the PR agency handling the crisis. Edelman, whose client list doesn’t include Charles Manson, Hitler, Simon Cowell or NAMBLA, but would if they showed up with a suitcase full of cash, is very highly regarded when it comes to the task of lipsticking rabid pigs. Continue reading

Trouble in Murdochland redux

A couple of months ago we noted that things were not going all that well in Murdochland, what with investigations heating up over allegations that phone hacking–that delightful pastime of hacking into someone’s voicemail so you can read and/or hear their messages—was far more pervasive than anyone had guessed. Or, certainly, than Murdoch and his News Corporation team were prepared to admit. Since then, it’s gotten worse, with lots of lawsuits, and allegations, and to-ing and fro-ing all over the place. But it wasn’t until this past week that the whole situation finally exploded, and explode big time it did.

Because it’s one thing to hack the voicemail of movie stars and politicians—the public turns out to be supremely indifferent to that. It’s quite something else to hack into the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl and delete messages, leading her parents to think she was still alive. Or the families of other murdered schoolgirls. Or the relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the victims of the July 7 bombings. Not only is this beyond the bounds of decency by several orders of magnitude, the public actually recognizes this. And they’re steamed. Continue reading

The Fourth four years later: Nothing’s changed

As I predicted four years ago on the Fourth of July, little has changed. This year’s fireworks and barbecues offer only a brief respite from the problems of the nation, how they are worsening, and how those who are supposed to address them remain mere chanters of their respective ideologies.

Four years ago, I predicted that the cost of federal elections would continue to rise, that the role of money would increase dramatically. I did not predict — or even dream it could happen — the outcome of the Supremes’ consideration of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that deepened the hole in which corporate money could hide while paying for “electioneering communications.”

Sadly, I did not predict that more than 30,000 journalists would lose their jobs in the past four years, lessening the ability of the press to hold government accountable. To me, corporations are now essentially the American government; more journalists, not fewer, trained in the same accounting chicanery that allowed Enron to flourish, are necessary to hold corporate government accountable, too.
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Righthaven LLC may have wrong approach, but news companies need to protect content

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Stephens Media and its erstwhile partner, Righthaven LLC, lost a significant copyright battle in both Nevada and likely Colorado when a Nevada judge ruled Tuesday that Righthaven did not have standing to sue alleged copyright infringers who had reproduced articles and other content from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

It’s yet another push by news media to try to get paid for republication of news content reproduced by aggregators, bloggers and others, with or without credit. And bloggers and folks from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are fighting back, dubbing Righthaven nothing more than a “Copyright Troll.”

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Haste, cost erode editing of online and mobile news

In 1976, I was a general-assignment reporter of limited experience and minimal accomplishment. So my editor kindly fired me, then said: “Now get your ass up on the copy desk where you belong.”

I knew little about copy editing. So I asked my newsroom godfather: “Neil, what do copy editors do?”

He looked over the rims of those 1950s spectacles he favored and said, “Defend your reader.”

“Against what?” I asked.

Error,” he said. “Any error possible.”

The memory of, or, perhaps, even the desire to exercise that dictum may remain in today’s newsrooms. But the ability of copy editors today to defend readers against error has inexorably been eroded. That decimation of editing capacity has been fueled by computerization beginning in the late ’70s and continued in this past decade by the sacking of newsroom staffs and the insatiable demand of management to get stories online or winging to mobile devices right now.
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FCC: Move to digital hasn't improved local news reporting

From the “The Feds Are The Last To Know Department”:

The Federal Communications Commission released a study today reporting that an “explosion of online news sources in recent years has not produced a corresponding increase in reporting, particularly quality local reporting …” The study, titled “Information Needs of Communities” takes a broad but somewhat shallow look at the media landscape. It reads as more of a history of how modern media arrived at its current state than as a clear, practical recipe for change.

The study — which looks at the local reporting performance of all media, not just that of newspapers — was undertaken by senior FCC adviser Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. According to his study:

In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.

Well, duh. Continue reading

Presidential polls: Much ado about nothing 17 months early

Egads! News flash from pollster Gallup Inc.:

PRINCETON, NJ — Mitt Romney (17%) and Sarah Palin (15%) now lead a smaller field of potential Republican presidential candidates in rank-and-file Republicans’ preferences for the party’s 2012 nominee. Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain essentially tie for third, with Cain registering 8% support in his initial inclusion in Gallup “trial heat” polling. Notably, 22% of Republicans do not have a preference at this point. [emphasis added]

Yawn. This poll conducted May 20-24 with a random sample of 971 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents tells me nothing I want to know or need to know. I’m not necessarily picking on pollster Gallup; my objections apply to most of these almost weekly presidential preference polls. They mislead and misrepresent more than enlighten. In sum, they represent manufactured noise with little signal.
Continue reading