Newspapers founder in habit-driven cultures — so the habits need changing

One morning a few weeks ago, I sat at the end of the counter in my favorite diner, Robbins Nest. Lisa brought tea, Jessica asked, “The usual?” and owner Crystal badgered chef Anthony (as usual).

CATEGORY: JournalismI set up my iPad mini to read. I noticed, however, the house copy of the metro daily from the big city two hours north. I picked it up and leafed through the 10-page front section. You know, the section with meaningful news for someone who lives two hours away.

I looked at story after story, page after page. I saw the metro had 11 — that’s 11 — stories from The New York Times in those 10 pages. That’s not unusual: Newspapers subscribe to wire services. Such services act as consortiums to provide newspapers with material they could not afford to report, write, and edit on their own. My own paper subscribed to The Times’ wire service back in the day. So seeing 11 Times stories in the local metro daily wasn’t a surprise.

But I had read each of those Times stories 12 hours before on my little iPad mini — because I’m one of The Times’ million-plus digital-only subscribers.

How does this metro daily — and others — fare financially if it prints stories many of its readers may have read online the day before?

According to the metro daily’s chapter of the Newspaper Guild, not so well, although management continues to put a positive spin on it. Said one newspaper executive, according to the Guild, “Our big goal is unchanged: It’s to keep the print newspaper viable for as long as possible, buying us time to develop our digital audience.”

Strike one: The progress to the goal for digital subscribers is miniscule, notes the Guild.

Strike two: Running stories from wire services some readers — perhaps an increasingly many readers — have seen hours before the print paper ever hits the streets is a slow march to obscurity.

Strike three: This local metro daily has become an example of habit-driven decline — “Once a great animal but unable to adapt” announces the caption under a picture of a dinosaur illustrating a column by media analyst and critic Frederic Filloux.

Readers’ habits have evolved; newspapers’ habits not so much. The audience of choice for newspapers (hell, for any medium), the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, sees the news long before a print paper ever serves it up.

Writes Filloux:

Looking back over the last ten or so years, it turns out that many of us share the same feeling of powerlessness and frustration. It is not exactly a relief to see how, on both sides of the Atlantic, the transition to digital appears so painfully difficult for so many news media.

I have long considered that the sector’s financial situation, stemming from audience losses and advertising depletion, was the main culprit. I no longer think this is the case. The main cause of legacy media failure to make a successful digital transition lies in its inability to overhaul its ancestral culture. The phenomenon cascades from top management down to every layer in the company, and the fossilization makes little distinction between generations. [emphasis added]

America’s dailies had almost 56,000 full-time newspaper employees — mostly reporters and editors — in pre-recession 2006. Today, barely more than 30,000 toil under the stress of the expectation to produce what twice as many once did.

I’ve written about this numerous times since 2007 here at S&R. Layoff after layoff, newspaper corporate executives would sing the same tune in the same corporate language.

We’re redeploying our newsroom resources to better serve our readers.

We’re shifting our news focus from print to digital to better serve our readers.

 We’re redefining what a journalist is to better serve our readers.

 Don’t worry: The quality of our journalism will be unaffected by our newsroom restructuring …

… all to better serve our readers.

 As Filloux writes, “[S]cores of media companies have been taking initiatives out of fear and desperation, often clinging to the day’s most hyped feature.” That fear and desperation have trumped foresight — and Filloux lists the many opportunities legacy media stumbled on, leading to ever more fractured relationships with readers. Missed were apps, aggregators, advertising technologies, recommendation engines, audience building, social platform, and a swift shift to mobile.

Then again, it’s hard to expect legacy media executives who believed getting rid of nearly half the workforce that creates its principal product to be bright enough to capitalize on those opportunities.

So I sit here in Robbins Nest, chowing down on my two scrambled and modest home fries. I neatly fold the house copy of the metro daily and place it back on the counter.

Surely someone else will pick it up.

2 replies »

  1. Aggregating and printing news for distribution to readers made perfect sense for centuries. Just as town criers made perfect sense in centuries prior to that. But technologies change and print media is now a failing business model soon to be relegated to the dust bin of history along with other archaic and outmoded industries such as colliers, whale oil purveyors, and lamp lighters.

    I see similar disruption in public libraries and while I have fond memories of long hours spent in them I also realize without a doubt that ink on paper as a method of communication is wobbling precariously on its last leg.

    Journalism and books aren’t dying. They’re just fighting to find their rightful place in the cacophonous milieu of a barely 30 year old digital marketplace. I find the disruption and change quite exciting, but then it’s not my livelihood either.

  2. I both agree and disagree with your summary. It is true that editors and their staff have a woeful lack of understanding how to put out a digital newspaper. They seem to think and wrongfully so, that all you need to do is transfer the print template into a digital format. This is wrong on many levels. First, the internet newscycle is immediate, while the print newscycle goes from putting the paper to bed (often 11:00 PM of the previous day) to the next deadline. This lag of 24 hours between dissemination of different news does not help the cause of print journalism. In another age that was sufficient, but no longer. Nor do many newsrooms understand how to leverage social media to promote their product. Even the people behind the vaunted experiment, “The Ben Franklin Project” of Digital First Media failed to understand how the internet distributes news.

    But journalism’s decline began with television, who had the capability of reporting news instantly. Print media dug in by providing more comprehensive coverage of the news. This almost worked until shifting demographics of the 80’s (more women going into the workforce) pulled the rug out from under newspapers as circulation began a long slow erosion of readers and revenue.

    But the real perpetrator of journalism’s demise is the boardroom decisions to improve profits by slashing expenses. And by expense we mean people doing the work. The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) reports that in 1978 43,000 people worked as full-time journalists, while in 2015 this number is 32,900. This is a 25% percent decline of journalists serving a population that has seen a 32% increase in the same time period. Make no mistake. Real journalism is a time consuming enterprise that demand feet in the street. But when you reduce your workforce you put fewer feet in the street and you use other methods to fill your news hole, like using wire services and articles from sister papers.

    The American public has registered their dissatisfaction with print media by buying less of it. Unfortunately, this only leads to shrinking revenue and more expense slashing producing a vicious repeating cycle of loss to where our rights a public to free press is being severely compromised. The only needs that being served are the investors who demand more profit at less expense.

    As for newspapers executives expecting that digital revenue will eventually fill the gap of once lucrative print advertising, that is another fail in their thinking. But that’s a post for another day.