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The carnage

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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:03 AM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

..."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."

Operation in that singular sense may just be what happens, especially as relates to the national and international stories with a stringer here and there to cover state and local news.

Hey! isn't that the USA Today model?

"Certainly, the decline of readership has been steady over decades ..."

More accurately, the decline in readers purchasing the print edition has been steady over decades.

"Readership," alas, has never been stronger. As you rightly note, eyeballs don't equal advertising dollars.

Well, I agree that its stupid and insensitive to tell the people now in the line of fire that it's their fault. On the other hand to blame it on the business people doesn't seem entirely satisfactory either. The advertising came because we delivered readers. The readers have wandered off but they didn't go in search of better advertising, they went in search of better content. The advertisers just want to get between an eyeball and the thing it wants to look at. If circulations are dropping then that's no longer newspapers.
This has not happened in other places, so why do we regard it as inevitable? My American visitors seem to think that this is just a matter of time - as the web reaches other places their newspapers will go the same way. Yet it seems that a lot of Americans now visit the websites of UK newspapers. So I wonder if there has been some system-wide misunderstanding of what readers really want.
My personal suspicion is that several generations of journalists have been catastrophically misled on this point by teachers of journalism in universities (a category which includes me). Working in a university gives you a very skewed idea of how much boredom people will tolerate if they have a choice.

I wonder what the "readership" of The Baltimore Sun web site has been doing over the last few years? I am sure that Management has such data, even to the number of unique visitors per hour, day, month, etc. Have those numbers been rising at a rate comparable to the paper readership drop? Since many newspapers and other content providers have decided that their electronic versions will be provided free, while continuing to charge for the printed versions, it may be naive to think that people will continue to pay for content they can get free.

I am an unpaid blogger for a Mom page for the N&O in Raleigh. Your description of Animus was so consistent with my piece that was published today based around the Migrant Mother photo from the Depression. I get so angry when I hear people refer to those who are losing jobs, unable to get jobs and struggling to get by as incompetent slackers who are just trying to get on the government dole, etc.

Here's the link if you are interested.

http://www.trianglemom2mom.com/content/migrant-mother

Here's a blurb:
I hope we don’t see the percentage of unemployed without remembering that the people who comprise that percentage are struggling to put food on their tables and making decisions between purchasing their prescriptions and paying the electric bill. I hope that the economic good fortune that many of us have experienced for most of our lives, doesn’t make us view those who are in need as slackers who collect welfare and would be fine if they just got off the couch and got a job. I have heard this sentiment on several occasions from many different people. Call me a Liberal, a label I wear proudly, but this opinion is appalling to me!

...it may be naive to think that people will continue to pay for content they can get free.

I do miss holding the Sunday funnies - in glorious smudgy color - in my hands. The Washington Post - unlike the Sun - lets me read them online for free which is generous but not the same.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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