History tells us that when an industry is declining, its speed of descent depends on the ability of management and workers to accept changing realties and either find new ways of operating, or diversify into other areas of business. Most U.S. newspapers have yet to learn the lesson.
With circulations waning and advertisers shifting to cheaper and more user-friendly online alternatives, many traditional American newspapers are sliding towards extinction. As revenues plummet, can they find a way to plug the hole and attract more income?
One way might be to keep existing readers and find new ones. Over the past decade, newspapers have interpreted this as providing more consumer product information – magazine-style articles on food, wine, vacation destinations and so on. The theory seems to be that within an ever-growing multitude of newspaper sections, there will be something for everybody. Judging from falling circulations, this isn’t working.
The Washington Post recently reported that revenues from its newspaper division are continuing on a downward trend. The Seattle Times-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News have closed. Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, is in bankruptcy protection. The New York Times, which also owns the Boston Globe, has had to mortgage its office building to stay afloat.
Online editions of these newspapers do raise advertising revenue but it is far too little to sustain a large newsgathering and processing infrastructure. A few, like the Wall Street Journal, have succeeded in maintaining circulation.
Elsewhere, alarm bells should be ringing and editors might like to ask themselves if there is anything in their newspapers’ content that could change. For example, with around forty per cent of Americans describing themselves as conservative, why are struggling newspapers continuing to alienate such a large portion of their potential market by promoting liberal orthodoxy every day in their news pages? Do they have a death wish?
With thoughtful news commentary increasingly available online, consumers are turning more and more to free sources like this one for analysis and stimulating insights. Bookmark your favorite commentators and there is little need to subscribe to mounds of newsprint.
Yet content is sacrosanct in traditional newspaper fiefdoms and the way journalists view their role tends to define what they produce.
This week, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News described one aspect of her job as “challenging politicians”. That seems fair enough for a television commentator.
Under the headline, “Journalists Left Out of The Debate” (24 August 2009), one seasoned Washington Post writer lamented that “even when [newspapers] report the facts, they have had trouble influencing public opinion.” The journalist was objecting to Sarah Palin’s success in raising opposition to the President’s healthcare reforms by referring to Death Panels on Facebook.
For many years, American news journalists have seen their job as adjudicating in favor of liberalism on the political issues of the day. While newspapers were making profits this might have been a sustainable practice. But as these old ships sink, it beggars belief that they continue to editorialize on news pages as if Americans need to rely on them to form appropriate political views.
Interestingly, the Washington Post is one of the newspaper companies that is successfully diversifying its business. Its portfolio includes six local television stations and, most importantly, a subsidiary that provides online education services. These education interests now account for more than half of the company’s revenues.
Yet, when companies diversify successfully, it is the company management and shareholders that are the main beneficiaries. The workers in the old parts of the business will only be retained if they change their skill sets. Profit-makers won’t subsidize loss-making comrades for long.
Most Americans who still buy newspapers on a daily basis do so to read about what has been happening, not for political indoctrination. Unless editors recognize that a newspaper’s success is measured by circulation and income, not political opinion polls, they will continue on their rapid path towards oblivion.