Word spread fast yesterday as newspaper employees at Gannett properties across the country were told that they no longer had jobs. It’s an ugly time to be out of a job, and those of us who are still holding on are deeply distressed to see our colleagues turned out. *
As revenues collapse, newspapers are desperately cutting jobs, cutting space, cutting anything they can find to stay afloat.
The odd thing is that newspapers still have readers. Certainly, the decline of readership has been steady over decades, and daily newspapers have been largely unsuccessful in attracting younger readers, but it is not the loss of readers that has brought on the crisis. It is the loss of the advertising that supports the enterprise.
Newsroom employees — reporters, photographers, artists, editors — believe that people buy newspapers to see their work. This is only a partial truth. The lack of an effective metric to determine just what readers look at in the paper disguises from reporters and editors how many people are interested solely in the comics and puzzles, or the recipes and the advice column, or the sports scores — buying the paper but ignoring the news stories and editorials.
But the other partial truth, the one that newsroom employees have studiously ignored for years, is that the paper does not exist to deliver their work; it exists to deliver advertising. News people see the paper as a collection of news stories with advertising; the business side sees the paper as advertising to which some news stories have been added in the remaining space. There is some truth in each view, but the money is all on the business side, and now that money is going away.
There was hope at one point, a few years back, that the Internet would help to balance the reader/revenue equation. But the advertising from the Web has not been enough to support the enterprise, and, as David Sullivan points out, the hope of revenue from paid content on the Web is gone.
That people will not pay enough for electronic content to support the operation should come as no surprise. People have never been willing to pay enough for the print edition to support the enterprise. The money raised through circulation — subscriptions and street or newsstand sales — is significant but totally inadequate to sustain news gathering.
The prospect before my colleagues in journalism is the same one that the steel industry faced and which the automobile industry is now facing: brutal and relentless reductions in operations and staff until some equipoise can be reached at which the size of the operation matches the revenue coming in.
It’s not over yet.
* Not all of us. The master of schadenfreude, Mr. Animus, has been commenting repeatedly at Gannett Blog linked above, telling the people who have lost jobs that the collapse of the business is their own fault because of their incompetence. Had Mr. Animus been present at the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he would no doubt have informed the last few soldiers on the walls that the rise of Islam and the centuries-long decay of the Byzantine Empire was all their doing.