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. Four years later, I landed at my hometown paper, where I worked my way from general assignment reporter to managing editor. After 20 years, I left to teach in the journalism school at the nearby university.

I left because when I started, a local family owned the paper. They sold it, and the new corporate owners sold it after just a couple of years. I left because the latest owners referred to the newspaper as “product” while at the same time slashing the staff. The frustration of having to do more with less turned me into a heart attack waiting to happen. Fortunately, I was blessed with the opportunity to teach.

But I still consider myself to be a journalist, so I go through the paper each day with an editor’s eye.  I read public affairs reporting—say, a story about a school board meeting—and find it is often little more than stenography. Stories aren’t reported in detail or followed up because reporters are required to file two bylined stories a day. That’s how assembly lines are run. It’s not how to manage a newsroom.

The demand for bylines results in shallow stories that are quick to report and easy to write. Reporters don’t have time to dig into a story that might take days or weeks to report and write. People will read those stories, though. They will talk about them. Readers care about content, and even in an era when newspapers are vanishing, an era when readers get their news in pixels and not in ink, content still is all that matters. Fewer reporters = less content = fewer readers/page views = fewer advertisers = declining revenue. The equation is unassailable. But too many newspaper owners think raising the price of the paper and cutting the staff is the way to increased profits. Charging more for less is no way to sell a “product.”

I know nearly all of the reporters at the newspaper. They do their best under tough circumstances and barely have time to do it. But because no one is from my hometown, the sense of local history has vanished. For example, every Saturday the paper runs an old-time local photograph submitted by readers. One week it showed a railroad crew standing in front of a steam locomotive. The information beneath the photo said the crew and locomotive were part of the “Penny” railroad. Local natives know “Penny” was shorthand for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but Penny was what was written on the back of the photograph, so that’s what the paper printed. Longtime readers know better. They shake their heads. They scoff. The paper’s value to them diminishes.

As a teacher/journalist, I like to think that if I still were on the copy desk, I would catch those mistakes—like the line in a page 1 story saying a new local law would go into effect in May of 2105. I sent a former colleague an email saying I didn’t realize our local legislators were such visionaries. His response was that I can laugh now, but I’ll feel different about it in 91 years.

Ever since the newspaper became a “product,” though, I haven’t been able to stop thinking that my local daily newspaper won’t survive nearly that long.

8 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on Hemmingplay and commented:
    Until newspapers — or whatever replaces them — can provide a decent living for a reporter to raise a family and legal protection against counterattacks of the wounded powerful, we’re going to suffer an unprecedented wave of public corruption. It’s already happening.

  2. Pat,

    I’ll go farther, as my favorite capitalist, Mr. Potter, would say. I’d say the corporate mindset of “EVERYTHING IS PRODUCT” has killed/is killing not just newspapers/magazines, et. al., but the music industry, the arts, education – hell, any human endeavor that is “value added” rather than product driven.

    I fear we’re going to do some hard traveling before we get to a better place about all this….

  3. Good points, Jim. Fortunately, the National Football League provides a model of financial success based on positive ethical and moral principles. And all my hair has grown back, in dreadlocks.

  4. I was a reporter way back when, and I couldn’t agree more. Reporters have become “content providers” with the emphasis on the providing rather than the nature of the content. My local paper has diminished by about half in size over the last decade, it lost its 100-year-old location downtown and now is in a smallish nondescript building in a suburban office park. Its classified section is nearly nonexistent, the quality of the writing and editing is way down, but the price is way up. If I weren’t a confirmed news junkie,I wouldn’t bother reading it anymore. But I am.

  5. Pat

    I’ve argued this before, but is it possible that the period you’re refering to is the anomaly? That is, before WWII newspapers were markedly worse–highly partisan, etc, etc. And the further back you go the worse they were. Then sometime mid twentieth century, journalism-as-profession emerged and our expectations rose. We began to expect courage, objectivity, thoroughness, depth, etc, etc. Maybe it dates a little earlier (Missouri and Medill Journ schools were founded 1908 and 1921 respectively,) but in general journalism has almost always been a profession of last resort and attracted talent to match.

    I agree that using the language of business (product, brand, etc) for every single thing in society is shallow and not helpful, but I’m not sure it caused the decline in journalism. Leaving aside the whole internet-has-replaced-local-news thign for a moment, I’d argue that the current spate of wretched journalism isn’t cuased by a product mindset but by one of two factors:

    1. At best it’s cyclical–you get bad journalism to a point where it gets so bad that people revolt. I know I’ve stopped watching MSNBC, et al because I just cant take it anymore, even though I agree with them.
    2. At worst, the golden age of journalism was a blip, one made possible by a simulateous increase in standards, emergence of some outspoken champions of good journalism, and a set of monopolies (e.g., TV) that made it easier to push good journalism because fewer people were involved.

    As always, enjoy your stuff. write more.