Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"It's Not Even About Survival Anymore, Now It's A Question Of Timing"

"In 1968, I was driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a Shelby Cobra with three gorgeous young birds. Suddenly, the radio program was interrupted to report that I'd just been found in my hotel room dead from an overdose."
Ginger Baker

"The Face Of Journalism Is A Grim Mask These Days; "It's Not Even About Survival Anymore, Now It's A Question Of Timing" - A San Francisco Journalist Chronicling What's Happening At The Chronicle
Philip M. Stone June 12, 2007

If there is one newspaper in the US that stands out amongst all the rest for having to fight before anyone else the flight of classified advertising to the Internet it must be the San Francisco Chronicle, for it is in that city by the bay that Craigslist first got its start, and the financial hemorrhaging throughout the industry from that continues to this day. The Hearst-owned newspaper, which operates one of the most successful newspaper web sites in the country, has been losing some $60 million a year since 2000 and is anyone out there calling that just "cyclical"?
Back in 2005 the Chronicle dumped around 100 journalists and it is now in the midst of getting rid of another 100 -- 25% of its reporting and editing staff. As Ken Garcia of the rival Examiner wrote, "The face of journalism is a grim mask these days. What is happening at the Chronicle is happening at newspapers all across America." He spoke to a writer at the Chronicle who told him, "It's not even about survival anymore. Now it's a question of timing."

Now that's not exactly the spin you hear from publishers or trade organizations who talk about print and digital reach combined being higher than ever before and who are waiting, perhaps praying, for the day when digital revenue gains will begin to exceed print revenue losses. Then everything will be all right? Well, bottom line, yes; print journalistic product, definitely no!

Newspapers make no secret they are refining their journalistic work practices - the main effort goes to the Internet and with less journalists working local beats, indeed less and smaller-sized pages, less news hole and the like then how can anyone say with a straight face that most US newspapers are of the same journalistic quality that they once were? But the profits and margins are still very good, so it doesn't really matter, right? Besides, newspapers are very successfully pulling the journalistic wool over their readers' eyes, right?

Well, actually, the public does see what is happening, and they don't particularly like what they see.
A good example is at the Arizona Republic, the second largest Gannett newspaper next to USA Today. Now it's no secret that Monday is the lightest news and advertising day so the Republic back in March figured it would reduce Monday's news hole, save on newsprint and the like, and no one would notice. Not only that but the editor put a positive spin on it all.

It's not that the newspaper was cutting back, no, indeed market research said to do this, editor Ward Bushee wrote for the first such Monday edition, "Today, we introduce a new kind of Monday newspaper designed for busy people on the busiest day of the week." Everything in the paper was brief, designed to be forward-looking and time efficient. No local news section or business section as usual - it's all packed into in the newspaper's first section. People complained then, and they continue complaining today. Mondays are still light but The Republic is, after all, the newspaper giant in its town. It didn't lose subscribers because of its Monday change, so to the accountants and management everything is just fine. But journalistically, that Monday edition is light - no matter what spin you put on it -- and the Republic's customers know that. Readers are not near as stupid as publishers might think or hope.

Does it matter to the people of Los Angeles, for instance, that the Times has seen several Pulitzer Prize journalists recently leave the newspaper for greener pastures. It should, their print newspaper has lost great quality reporting, but at Tribune headquarters in Chicago where every penny counts as the company finances its going-private sale to Sam Zell that quality isn't what really matters these days. The Los Angeles Times is The Los Angeles Times. It is still the only big newspaper game in town, but, journalistically, it's readers know it is not the animal it once was.

And it's not just in the US. In the UK newspaper circulation has also been diving for years and managers have taken the same tack as in the US - cut, cut, cut. Press Gazette, the UK's media trade newspaper, carried a fascinating quote from the blog of Charles Arthur, a former staffer at the Independent and who now edits the Guardian's technology supplement. He remembered back in 1995 when the Independent had just gone through job losses and there was consternation that the newsroom was real thin.

"In those days there were two health correspondents, a social services correspondent, a science writer, technology writer, another science writer, religious affairs writer, transport writer, labor writer, environment writer . . . and they were all different people. Now there's a health writer, science writer, environment writer. Nobody is doing religion, technology, transport, labor. It's not just cut to the bone - it's down to the heart and lungs, kept going in some sort of vat with the brain possibly attached," he wrote.

Could cuts like that be one reason for the circulation slide in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic? Everyone blames the Internet for print's decline as if all of the print editorial cutbacks have had nothing to do with continuing circulation slides

Back to San Francisco. One of those to go in the current cull is John Curley, Chronicle deputy managing editor and a 25-year veteran. He wrote to staff, "We all know what is happening in the newspaper industry, and it's not pretty." No doubt those who scoff at the doomsayers will scoff at that, too. After all, new business models are new business models!

One obvious solution, of course, is for print to find more ways to drive in new revenues instead of just resorting to more cuts. One new revenue stream that is working pretty well is running ads on front pages of sections including the home front page. Journalists don't like giving up that prime territory, but it is better than giving up jobs.

The way Women's Wear Daily is going about it could be a key to others. They sell a thin strip across the bottom of the page, but in order for an advertiser to get that prime space, they also have to commit to a full-page ad inside the newspaper and a series of ads on the newspaper's web site.

Back nearly 40 years ago this writer was a young journalist at the San Jose Mercury-News when it was a Ridder paper, before Knight came along. The AM Mercury and the PM News in those days were advertising magnets - enough revenue and then some to keep publisher Joe Ridder in his fleet of Rolls Royces. And because of the ad money flowing in the ad department was all powerful.

The story goes that there was a meeting in which the ad people suggested to Joe Ridder that there be a slight change to the way ads were positioned on the inside pages. Instead of putting the ads at the bottom of the page and giving editorial what was left at the top of the page, just do the reverse. Advertising would get and charge more for the prime space at the top and editorial would get what was left unsold at the bottom of the page. It was said at the time it was one of the very few times that Joe Ridder said "No" to the ad department.

Perhaps that story should have remained untold. Who knows, perhaps Dean Singleton might read this.

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