Saving newspapers requires hiring, not firing, journalists

Each time a newspaper’s corporate owners — and these days, most never worked as journalists — cut the editorial staff, the paper’s readers lose access to a mind and a pair of eyes that keep watch over government, business, and the public’s interests.

Until the discovery of newspapers as profitable cash cows by Wall Street more than four decades ago, newspapers were owned by people who had 1) worked as journalists, 2) understood the community the paper served, 3) believed in the public service mission of journalism, and 4) understood the need for an appropriate profit to maintain that mission of serving the public interest.

Those owners and publishers understood what they were selling — the ability of their editorial staffs to tell both wanted and needed stories to their readers about their communities. They knew that readers wanted and would buy their papers for sports, Dear Abby, and crossword puzzles. But they also knew their readers needed and would also buy well-done, “eat-your-spinach” stories about corrupt government and its agencies; misbehaving businesses; shenanigans of politicians; and fire, court and police activities. But that’s all changed now.

Those owners and publishers understood their audiences’ needs and wants. They knew that to maintain the daily stream of salable and profitable content they needed a sufficient number of well-trained, experienced journalists who knew their beats and their sources.

Those owners and publishers are a minority now, bought out by profit-maximizing mega-corporations seeking to turn these 10-percent papers into 30-percent papers. The old, ink-stained owners have been replaced by corporate minions who never worked in a newsroom and who believe that whatever is placed on a newspaper page (or a Web site) is sufficient to breed substantial profit.

Google “editorial staff cuts.” You’ll probably find that American newspapers cut a few thousand journalists last year and bought out hundreds more. Gone are minds that produced the content that is the product that newspapers have historically sold to readers for a few hundred years.

Modern newspaper management has made numerous bone-headed decisions in the past 15 years, mostly from failing to anticipate the influence of the Web as a delivery vehicle for news — and from failing to charge for the unique content journalists produced during those nascent days of news Web sites.

Now these corporate management tycoons are making an error likely to prove fatal to their attempts to recover from their missteps and misdeeds. Oh, sure, they’re trying to dump the printing presses in a rush to be Web-only. But what will they put there?

Because current newspaper owners have so few roots into the meaning and role of journalism in American life, they’re getting rid of the minds responsible for locally generated, unique content.

That’s the content that readers used to be willing to buy. If it’s not present in these new, Web-only aggregations passing for news, no one’s going to read it — free or not.

Corporate newspapers owners should show some spine — hire back experienced journalists, and plenty of them. Produce newspapers, Web-only or not, worth reading. That’s their only route to return to profitability and respectability.

(Tip o’ the hat to my colleague John Hanchette.)

5 replies »

  1. Well said. Your article expresses my sentiments exactly. I’ve seen this happen to our local paper (serving a population of around 100,000 but not nearly that many subscribers). No more real local news, lots of fluff, avoiding offending the “big boys” and government administrators. Fewer pages total, with a smaller percentage of news. A nice propaganda piece, which would be okay if there was a local alternative news source but the same people seem to run the TV and radio as well.

  2. Dr. Denny////great post.

    I’m a full blown capitalist who believes that you have to spend money to make money.

    I’d also rather have a perpetual 10% return than a risky 30% return.



  3. I agree. What came to me while I was reading was a different possible solution though. What if there was a way for all of the out of work journalists to get paid for news articles freelance? A site like Google News might do it, but there needs to be a localized version as well. It seems much more likely than newspapers evolving AND hiring good staff.

    I’ve completely abandoned print news–it’s advertising, not journalism.


    It appears that the owners of early news papers were driven more by a political idealolgy than profit, though profit was necessary to continue publishing. I thinnk that rather than opine the death of the ‘buggy whip manufacturers’, efforts should be directed to understanding how to more efficiently and economically utilize the new vehicle of information distribution. I would suggest that a ‘news paper’ today can be constructed by a world-wide consortium of networked reporters. Look at some of the ex-pat blogs reporting out of China, or anywhere else. If you can aggregate the ‘reporting’, I think you can develop relatively low cost news collection system, that could operate at relatively low margins and make a profit. On the other hand, Craig’s List and Ebay absorb a lot of the potential classified ad revenue, so that the network’s product/output has to be,as it always has in the news paper industry, compelling to achieve the audience needed to provide full time employment for the contributor’s/writer’s/reporter’s. This is not an easy task, but I would argue that with the right ‘components’, it is achievable.

  5. Rick: What you suggest — a consortium of networked reporters — may be financially successful, but I doubt the consortium will cover my local school board in a town of 2,000 people. Aggregated journalism is not local journalism.

    Steve: You’re right. Early papers were partisan — but still had to be sufficiently profitable to survive. Freelancers need steady work, too, as well as someone to pay them, so I doubt I’ll see the same freelancer covering my local school board on a regular basis.

    Thanks for your comments, gentlemen.