Selling Newspapers All Over Again

The Argument

Investing in quality and credibility is at the heart of journalism's survival.

February 20, 2005|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff

In 1968, having completed my sophomore year of high school, I took a summer job writing and editing at the Flemingsburg Gazette, a weekly paper in Fleming County, Ky., where I grew up. I wrote on copy paper rolled into a manual typewriter and gave the text to a Linotype operator who set it in type in hot metal.

Today, I work alongside more than three dozen copy editors who edit articles and compose pages entirely on a computer. The venerable craft of the printer has been obliterated by this technology.

If you are reading this essay in pixels on a video screen, you are part of a further technological, economic and demographic shift that challenges the future of newspapering.

The challenges have been described repeatedly in books and magazine articles. There has also been electronic chortling over the expected demise of newspapers by bloggers -- who are parasitic on news organizations for their basic information.

The plight of newspapers is succinctly laid out in The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age by Philip Meyer (University of Missouri Press, 269 pages, $24.95). Meyer, holder of the Knight chair of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believes that if newspapers focus on credibility and quality, they can find ways not only to survive, but also to thrive.

The circumstances that bedevil newspapers are all too familiar within the business:

Because most newspapers are publicly owned and traded, Wall Street's expectation of quarter-to-quarter profits exerts tremendous pressure to increase revenue and contain or cut costs. In the past quarter-century, newspapers have been able to achieve profit margins of 20 percent to 30 percent or even higher; whether they can continue to do so is questionable.

Readership is declining, as it has for decades. The readers who are comfortable with ink-on-paper are gradually passing on to a location that no circulation department can reach, and the young are not developing the newspaper habit. The audience is fragmenting -- something that the other mass media, such as broadcast television, are also experiencing. The customers want Humvees or hybrid cars, and we at newspapers keep turning out Oldsmobiles.

And technological competitors, such as the Internet, are drawing away not only readers, but also advertisers, depriving newspapers of the revenues they need to sustain large news-gathering staffs and satisfy the expectations of analysts and stockholders.

The choice, as Meyer articulates it, is stark.

Newspaper companies can embark on "harvesting the assets": charging more and offering less until the good will and profitability are exhausted and the enterprise collapses, presumably after the harvesters have taken what money they can get and departed.

The alternative is to invest over the long term in making newspapers more competitive in the emerging electronic marketplace -- the catch being that profit margins are apt to be substantially lower.

The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, published in 2002 and the subject of much attention, gives the perspective of the newsroom: the view that newspapers have long cherished about themselves -- as public watchdogs and forces for good -- and the frustration over profit pressures.

Downie and Kaiser, the executive editor and associate editor, respectively, of The Washington Post, know the business, but journalists in newsrooms can be parochial, out of the suspicious distance that they maintain from the business side. The danger in railing against business pressures is that journalists may overlook a truism that Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Adolph Ochs, the Knight brothers and everyone else who ever made a go of newspapering realized; you have to be profitable to do the things you want to do.

The case Meyer's book seeks to establish through verifiable evidence -- mainly other people's surveys and statistical studies -- is that higher quality leads to higher profits. The data available to him are scarce and fragmentary, partly because newspapers are reluctant to divulge intimate details of their operations, and partly because the studies that have been made were limited and did not cover an adequate span of time.

But some significant correlations exist. Newspapers that emphasize quality appear to hold their ground longer than newspapers that do not.

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