May 31, 2012

Do you like this?

This is not a Chattanooga story (yet), but it is one of concern to any city with a daily newspaper. Recently, the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced it will cease publishing on a daily basis this fall and begin a three-day schedule, printing a paper on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The paper’s owners, Newhouse Newspapers, instead intends to emphasize its website, as it has done elsewhere. This is bad news not only for the staff (which will be significantly reduced) and the industry (already in a perilous state), but for the citizens of New Orleans and readers of newspapers in general.

The Times-Picayune has been in print since 1837 and, as The New York Times reported recently, avoided some of the deeper cuts in the industry, in part because the newspaper played such a critical role in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, earning Pulitzer Prizes for its public service and breaking news reporting. At that time, the paper’s staff did not evacuate but rode out the storm, updating its website with vital news until its presses could come back on line. The paper and the city recovered slowly but surely. Jim Romenesko, a popular industry insider, reports that the paper remains profitable and implies that the move is simply a cost-cutting measure rather than a technology-forward plan. In the publisher’s memo to his staff, the plan was referred to as a “more robust newspaper three days a week.” Surely, no one took this seriously.

There’s no doubt that the printed newspaper continues to suffer and decline, but the “forced march to digital,” as one newspaper consultant put it, has less to do with digital and more to do with the expense of producing and printing the news. While it’s true that digital advertising revenue is rising, it is not necessarily climbing on the websites operated by newspapers. A recent Pew Research Center study found that U.S. newspapers lost $10 in print advertising for every $1 they gained online.

Why? A generation has come of age that no longer values print, but demands news for free—and they get it, although where that news comes from is likely not from their local paper’s website. Many now increasingly rely on news reports not from credible sources, but from such sites as Facebook and other social media forums.

The Fourth Estate, as the press used to be known, was never intended to be a strictly money-making venture, but it did—and still does—make a comfortable living for many of its owners, publishers and staffers. Ask a reporter if he or she got into the business to make money and you’ll be greeted with a laugh.

To oversimplify, as newspapers became the property of corporations with shareholders, demand for profits increased and, combined with declining revenue, the gutting began. But the shift toward digital, while perhaps inevitable, does not necessarily compensate for a daily printed newspaper—in tone, accuracy or even, dare we say, pleasure.

And there’s more to it than that. In New Orleans, where 36 percent of residents still do not have Internet access, one reporter told The New York Times, “Both my subjects and my neighbors are always looking for a print copy of what I do. One of the charms of New Orleans is that we are 10 years behind in everything, and that includes the Web.” Sound familiar?


May 31, 2012

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