January 23, 2009

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Slim waistline

The crux of the matter is, to be swift about things, that The Courier-Journal should immediately cease publication of its daily print newspaper.

Everything about the collapse of print — or Print, as it were — is angling toward the daily paper as the first casualty. Put simply, overhead has become too high and ad values too low. Subscriptions, despite some shady figures you might be shown, are also too low (they are, traditionally, low income generators to begin with), generally because old people go blind or die and young people just don’t care about anything anymore.

Meanwhile, the C-J — and many, many others like it — has taken the worst strategy for staying in business, offering you everything from the paid-for print edition and more on its website. The only real payment on the web is spiritual: a brief stint eyeing that non-user initiated ad of Patti Swope talking with her hands, or some other such post-postmodern horror of the Internet (with apologies to Patti — it’s the ad, not you, that’s so offensive). Sometimes, the C-J uses its less-valuable product to scoop the one that costs a mint to print.

In difficult financial times, why allow two heads of the same beast to spit and bite and hiss at each other?

Further, and more directly: Why would I keep buying the newspaper when I can get its content free? That is the basic question everyone must ask, as they watch their Business section folded into Metro and the Classifieds become Velocity’s (a weekly, importantly) bailiwick.

At some point, the aesthetic/nostalgic argument for newspapers loses weight, starts to suck a little more. Maybe that point is now, when there’s a recession and gas prices are heading upward and everyone is telling you again and again that Print is Dead.

Maybe.

Tucson Weekly, LEO’s sister paper, ran a story on its website (whoa, boy!) yesterday about Gannett’s decision to close the daily Tucson Citizen if no buyer appears by March (luckily for the Fourth Estate, there’s another daily in town). The Citizen is the state’s longest running daily paper. Gannett is saying it will sell the name, URL, lists of contacts, ads, contracts and subscribers.

If you access any of that, you will have officially been sold out.

The story of the Citizen seems microcosmic for this whole death-of-dailies dish: A rapid decline in circulation and ad revenue led the company to begin to consume itself in the form of layoffs and cuts in resources. Like what has happened in Louisville, confidence in the daily paper waned as the cuts began to manifest in coverage. And so it goes with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News, both papers facing a similar reality.

I’d rather not watch that happen here in one-daily town, and I don’t think for a second Gannett would shut down the C-J. But by continuing layoffs, requiring five furlough days and generally treating its editorial and production staffs like drags on the business, Gannett is contributing directly to the devaluation of its product and hastening its own clumsy demise.

And it’s not like there’s no money. There’s just a high profit expectation.

According to an internal document leaked late last year to Gannett Blog, the profit margin at the C-J over the first three quarters of 2007 was 19.33 percent — somewhat low compared with its Gannett brothers and sisters. The paper made $78.5 million from advertising.

In fact, the only Gannett newspaper not actually turning a profit in 2007 was the Detroit Free Press, which is the first major daily newspaper in the country to take a proactive stance against its own demise, stopping daily delivery on certain weekdays.

“We may be seeing a simple continuation of the fragmentation of the way news consumers get their news,” says Rick Redding, whose blog, The Ville Voice, covers Louisville news and media (Redding has also written about media for LEO in the past). “There are more news-consuming choices, and that is forcing those who used to be dominant to adapt. The C-J will survive, it just won't dominate the way it used to.”

Like many at LEO Weekly, I have more than a couple friends at the C-J, and I like and respect many of its reporters’ work. I have no interest in seeing those people lose their jobs, and I take great interest in seeing that our city is characterized by strong, intelligent, competitive and comprehensive journalism. This work has value, more than page views or clicks-through or subscriptions. But when you’re a company with a high profit expectation and a sluggish attitude toward evolution, you have to find a way to quantify good reporting. The staff structure will have to change dramatically, because the web (as it seems to be now) demands more frequent coverage (= more resources) but offers significantly less money in advertising (= no money for more resources), not to mention the fact that the Internet is more than a great equalizer of content — everything is pretty much free.

In this kind of transformation, some people will lose. It shouldn’t be the reporters, the photographers and designers — in other words, the people making the product.

The C-J will, in order to survive, cease being a daily print publication — perhaps it’ll take a year, or five. Its news delivery device will be its website, where it will continue fulfilling its paper-or-record business, and print will be reserved for its long-form journalism, which is less likely to find a home online. Maybe it’ll be a Wednesday-Sunday magazine. Maybe Print really is dead.

In any case, we all see it coming — in fact, check this column Wednesday for a major announcement about how LEO is addressing its future.

Gannett has been too passive. It would do well to not only get ready for an alternate version of the future, but to aggressively confront it. 

Tagged: Editor’s Note |