American Culture

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? At least one observer suggests current corporate thinking is idiocy because of the less-than-optimal news product that results. And I’m wondering what readers are doing — and going to do — in this era of print contraction.

A tweet by a former student of mine, Brian Moritz, an experienced journalist turned media scholar, crystallized for me what has become of the newly digital news business:

Said it before. Will say it again. I hate how newspaper owners have equated digital journalism with cheap, small staffs and layoffs.

I’ve been writing about the newspaper industry at S&R for seven years. I wish I’d put this as succinctly as Moritz, now a doctoral student. Add the corollary, of course: Corporate suits promise the journalism practiced by those cheap, small staffs will be as vibrant as ever. Oh, well.

But I don’t see the corporate execs focusing on something perhaps more important: you and me, the readers. What’s happening with us?

Cognescenti inside and outside the industry have lately been consumed with discussions of the industry’s stumbling approach to paywalls — the mechanism by which they hope to charge readers for access to their websites’ content. (At the Columbia Journalism Review, there’s a lively debate under way now.)

Concern over procedures of payment is important. Who is going to pay is more important. Moritz’s academic focus — journalists’ routines — has me wondering who’s doing research into readership routines? And how they are changing?

This chart shows an eight-year decline in paid circulation of newspapers from the State of the News Media 2011 by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Surely news organizations’ marketing departments conduct readership surveys. (They’re unlikely to share the results.) But do they survey former readers and ask why those readers left the fold? And what might entice them to return? I sure would like to hear what readers tell them. Methinks there are a few doctoral dissertations available in that arena.

Your guess is as good as mine. Twitter, Facebook, news website hopscotch, Google News, the stupendous variety of aggregation sites? Are these the newly forming habits of former print newspaper readers? When media technologies are in flux, habit breakage and re-formation ought to be high in the minds of strategic planners in the news industry.

The news business is losing advertising revenue because the eyeballs it once had a lock on have departed. I just don’t get a sense that the industry is thinking about where they went and how to get them back.

That may be because newspapers no longer have a product of sufficient quality and diversity with which to tempt readers old and new. Small and cheap … have their costs.

h/t: Brian Moritz, Carole McNall

1 reply »

  1. In the business world we occasionally conduct something called a “win/loss analysis” where we interview those who chose us and those who chose a competitor, then we compare answers. What you’re talking about would be simpler, actually. The papers know who no longer subscribes and could easily survey that audience. May have already, in fact. My suspicion is that they would (or have) discarded the results because the answers aren’t cheap. These folks want better coverage of the issues that matter to them. Which means paying expensive reporters a living wage. So since it it’s not margin-friendly to give the customers what they want, the only thing left is to give them a bit of the old topsy-turvy – some smoke and mirrors and bright flashing lights and some hype – and hope they fall for it.

    Remember – always remember – that marketing as an industry is populated by people who are simply not that bright. It pains me to say this since I make my living in marketing, but it’s true.