Sunday, November 27, 2005

Will newspapers go down the dinosaurs' way?

(The US State Department has chosen me as the Philippines’ participant to the 2005 International Visitors’ Program for Leadership in Print Journalism conducted from September 15 until October 6. Together with 19 other participants from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern Europe, the program brought me to several cities in the US including Washington DC, New York, Tampa Bay, Omaha, San Diego and Los Angeles, where we had opportunities to interact with executives from several media organizations. Below is my story.)


WASHINGTON DC—Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of Washington Post and celebrity investigative reporter who helped uncover the Watergate scandal in the ‘70s, was in his element one cool September night at the McLean Hilton in Virginia. He was, after all, launching his new book The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, a personal account of his cloak-and-dagger liaisons with Mark Felt, the FBI whistleblower whose revelations kicked off a political storm that ousted US President Richard Nixon in 1974 and changed the course of American history. Speaking before a huge crowd of admirers, Woodward’s reminiscences painted a glorious picture of the Post’s happy past.

However, that night may have also been a regression for him, a fleeting respite from the current storms ravaging his paper: declining circulation, readership, and advertising revenue, courtesy of the intensifying onslaught by “new media” like the Internet as well as cable and satellite TV.

Five days earlier at The Washington Post’s headquarters in the nation’s capital, Andrew Mosher, the deputy foreign editor, talked to the BusinessMirror—and 19 other print journalists from Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Latin America—about his paper’s dilemma.

“Last year, our daily circulation was 800,000; now it’s down to 700,000,” Mosher said unflinching.

In its heyday, The Washington Post’s daily circulation was more than a million. These days, Mosher said, these numbers are falling and no one in the top management could give a satisfactory explanation as to why this is happening. They have no clear ideas too on how to deal with declining readership, which eventually would hurt ad revenues and ultimately the company’s bottom line.

But the Post is not alone.

On Wednesday, the New York Times Co. said its earnings fell by more than half in the third quarter, even as sales rose, because of higher costs and a charge related to staff reductions, the Associated Press reported.

The company, which publishes The Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune in addition to its flagship newspaper, had net income of $23.1 million for the quarter, down from $48.3 million in the same period a year ago.

In September, the Times said it would slash about 500 jobs over the next six to nine months.

At about the same time, the Philadelphia Inquirer (circulation: 388,000) also announced similar cost-cutting measures.

The big divide
MOSHER believes the problem facing US newspapers is part of a larger—possibly global—phenomenon.

“People are not really reading anymore,” he said, noting that consumers these days prefer to get their information from the Internet and other electronic media. People are just too busy to read, he said.

In reporting the story of the job cuts in New York and Philadelphia, Post reporter Frank Ahrens noted that national daily newspaper circulation in the US has declined every year since 1987.

“Newspapers once the only source of news, now compete not only with radio and network television, but also with numerous cable television networks and Internet news sources. In addition, other media—satellite radio, computer games, DVDs, Ipods and so forth—sap time required for reading daily newspaper,” Ahrens wrote.

“The death of evening newspapers across the country over the past three decades foretold the current slump.”

This depressing trend has ignited a debate within the company, and in newsrooms across the United States. On one side are young turks who are calling for a redesign of the newspaper, making it more readable to young readers by using more colors, graphics and pictures, with crisp and trendy stories. On the other side of the fence are the “dinosaurs” like Mosher who are resisting such changes for fear of alienating their current readers.

“If we change the look, readers might think it’s no longer the same Washington Post they used to read,” Mosher argued.

Politics in the US also tend to delineate between conservatives (or those perceived to be adherents of free markets and the war in Iraq) and the liberals (thought of to be adherents of big government). Hence there are views in newsrooms about the need to “play it to the middle” in order to capture the attention of the greater number of readers who are assumed to dwell in the gray areas of the American political spectrum.

“Should there be more analysis? Should it have more ‘attitude’? No one has a satisfactory answer,” Mosher sighed, reflecting the anxieties of an old media institution that is getting less sure of itself.

A changing audience
MEDIA experts from the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism training center that owns the St. Petersburg Time, say multi-tasking is now the name of the game. Citing a recent study by Middleton Media Studies Project by the Indiana-based Ball University, Howard Finberg, Poynter’s director for interactive learning noted that 30 percent of American’s observed waking day is spent with media as a sole activity, while 39 percent of the day is spent with media while being involved.

Citing the same report, Finberg said Americans spent 240.9 minutes watching television and 93.4 minutes surfing the Internet. Only 32.8 minutes are being spent reading various print media. But for newspapers per se, Americans spend a mere 12.2 minutes a day.

Ken Auletta, a New York-based media critic who writes incisive analytical pieces on media and communications for the New Yorker magazine, said new forms of media are displacing the newspaper in significant numbers. In 1960, all daily newspapers in the US sent out 59 million copies a day in an effort to reach 180 Americans. In 2004, that figure dropped to 54 million even though the US population doubled.

This trend, he said, came at a time when Americans were increasingly getting cynical of traditional media. Around two-thirds of Americans think the press in general is biased, which Auletta pointed out, has contributed to the decline of print media. That most traditional media organizations are affiliated with large conglomerates only strengthen the perception that they represent powerful special interests groups. Hence, Auletta said, the younger generation tends to look at new media as an alternative source of “empowerment.”

Auletta believes this situation could be dangerous. “Every one seems to think their audience is shrinking, so media, both print and broadcast, tries to shout louder to get attention,” he said. Taking this approach, however, risks alienating audiences even further. This largely explains, according to Auletta, the rise of so-called “silly journalism” that’s focused on sensational stories, tasteless entertainment, and gossip.

Rising tabs
AS circulation numbers drop, news organizations are being forced to evolve as they grapple to find the business model of the future.

Just this week, the Asian Wall Street Journal scrapped its broadsheet printing style for a smaller tabloid format. In a letter to readers, its editor, Reginald Chua, said the new format “is designed to make it easier to navigate through the paper.”
The American edition of the Journal will also shrink its format slightly in line with other major US newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. The redesign of the US edition will save it $18 million per year, the company said.

The shift to tabloids, which started in the United Kingdom several years ago, is one of the most notable trends in the industry.

In February, the Examiner group began distributing tabloids free of charge to affluent households (with annual incomes of $75,000 and above) in Washington DC and Virginia. The group had launched a San Francisco tabloid earlier.

Established by the Anschutz Group, whose business interests include oil exploration, film, soccer teams, and entertainment, the Examiner focuses largely on local news that run no longer than 250 words.

“This is a newspaper for people who want to be informed about their community but are too busy to read,” said John Wilpers, the paper’s editor-in-chief.

It carries only a few stories on foreign events save for developments in Iraq because the editors believe their readers are not as interested in such news. Instead, Wilpers and the other editors are pushing for “civic journalism” or stories that are closer to home and which “connect with people’s lives.”

For Wilpers, the Examiner represents the future of journalism as its business model due to a lower operating cost owing to its lean staff.

“The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal will still be there in the future but they will evolve into niche newspapers with significantly lower circulation, say 500,000 or less,” Wilpers predicted.

So far, several major broadsheets like The Washington Post, the Tampa Bay, Florida-based St. Petersburg Times and San Diego Union-Tribune have introduced their own tabloids to cater to younger readers while maintaining their own broadsheets. These tabloids are distributed free in subways, bus stops, hotels and other strategic public spaces.

In San Diego, the San Diego Reader, which feels like a folksy version of the New Yorker or Harper’s, regularly runs blogs of emerging creative writers in the city in an effort to get the attention of young readers.

The average reader in America is 50 years old. Hence, there are fears that broadsheets would lose their financial viability as readers grow old and die and the younger ones gravitate for “new media.” By introducing free tabloids, print media executives are hoping that someday these readers would “migrate” to broadsheets as they mature.

Still there is a fear that these free tabloids could cannibalize their broadsheets’ circulations. To avoid this, executives do not allow their tabloids, which have a separate staff and use different corporate identities, to use stories that appear in their broadsheets.

“Kids go college, graduate, get married, have kids, get involved in community affairs and start reading the newspaper,” noted Jim Booth, senior editor of St. Petersburg Times. “That’s the cycle then but not anymore. How to address this problem I don’t know. If I do, I’d be making millions by now.”

Other broadsheets like the Baltimore Sun and the Long Island, New York-based Newsday are freshening up their design in the hopes of winning back lost subscribers.

Many are apparently taking their cue from USA Today, whose colorful layout and feel-good stories enabled it to buck the trend of declining circulation.

Online news
THE one trend that everyone seems to agree on is establishing a presence on the Internet. News organizations in the US—and elsewhere— have poured huge investments into beefing up their online editions.

Media critics like Ken Auletta liken this to “planting a flag on the moon.” Many of the big names like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post are experimenting on how to generate revenue from their online editions, from charging a few dollars for access to certain content to web advertising.

And it seems to be paying off for some.

After ten years, the Post has started to earn money from its online edition but others have not been as successful.

Still media executives are hoping that there will come a time when accessing online newspapers will become a daily routine that readers will pay for content.

Auletta himself is convinced that the future is on the Internet. There are indications, he said, that online advertising will continue to grow in the next ten years. If online newspapers could provide the kind of readers that advertisers want to reach, they could turn in tidy profits.

The San Diego Union-Tribune (circulation: 300,000 on weekdays and 400,00 on Sunday) seems to be doing just that. The newspaper’s SignOnSanDiego.com not only contain breaking news to compliment the paper, but is a portal in itself as it also provides extensive information on jobs, real estate, cars and boats, shopping, travel, health and fitness, sports, restaurants, museums, and even wireless news for Web-enabled cellular phones, personal digital assistants, and other portable devices. To access the day’s paper, one has to answer a little questionnaire, thus enabling the company to continuously capture demographic data about their readership.

“Right now, we are primarily a news organization,” explained Todd Merriman, senior editor for news of the San Diego-Union Tribune. “In the future, we are going to be a news media organization.”

Despite such developments, some media executives are still wondering if there’s really room for print media in the brave new world of instant information.

Auletta himself conceded that print media is, technology-wise, obsolete. Data now flows at the click of the mouse, while the newspaper has practically remained unchanged since the Gutenberg Revolution, delivering tangible papers to readers a day after.

But no one’s giving up the fight.

“Are we a dinosaur? Yes, we are,” Auletta said. “But hey, dinosaurs lived for millions of years!”

4 comments:

None said...

dave,

nice to hear from you! good, absorbing piece.

cheers!
ramya
India

Without Borders said...

thanks, ramya. i remember people would laugh at me every time i ask about trends in circulation and the business side of newspaper writing. but i persevered then because i knew i was developing a story and i dont have to explain that to the world.

alexcasipl said...

Yes dave, in 2005 there were around 9 million internet users in the Philippines. PLDT predicted that the number will rise to around 21 million in the next five years. How many of them will cut expenses like buying newspapers and instead spend the savings on internet use and be contented with just browsing the on-line editions?

Without Borders said...

that's why, the online edition should not be a carbon copy of the tangible paper. it should instead provide breaking news stories while the paper is still being produced in the newsroom.