Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cuts in PD Newsroom are Imminent

Here's the new Free Times media column, published today. It focuses on new PD publisher Terry Egger and his austerity plans. They include eliminating at least some company cars, including the publisher's, and perhaps instituting quotas for the advertising sales staff. But more importantly, the paper will soon be offering qualified newsroom employees early retirement packages, in hopes of winnowing that staff by perhaps 30 positions. Alas, another sign of the times.
UPDATE: Jim Romenesko of the Poyner Institute was good enough to link to the column today (along the left rail). So this media column has gotten an excellent boost, with two of the first three installments reaching at least a modest national audience through the good offices of Mr. Romenesko, whose uniquely influential site I tried to explain here.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: The Poynter link, in turn, led to an interesting email exchange this afternoon with PD editor Doug Clifton, who naturally took issue with my notion that he's perhaps a little less intensely focused on his job than he once was. He had some interesting things to say, some of which I even found myself agreeing with. Anyway, I'll explore those issues in the next column, at least through means of an addendum to another subject.

17 Comments:

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anne said...

Hi John,

As usual, I have more questions than answers. What is the decline in newspaper circulation most attributed to and have any major newspapers been successful at bucking the trend? If yes, how?
Are free newspapers growing readership and how does the business model of free papers differ from subscription-based papers?

 
At 1:16 PM, Anonymous jdw said...

Let's pray to God that Kevin O'Brien gets an early retirement offer he can't refuse.

 
At 1:32 PM, Anonymous John Kroll said...

If you'll forgive a bit of self-promotion, people interested in what Terry Egger has to say don't have to wait for Friday's City Club speech. There's a two-part audio interview, available for download or listening online, at the new Weekend Diary page of Cleveland.com.

 
At 2:15 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

John, thanks for stopping by from the sparkling confines of 1801 Superior Ave. Self-promotion is by all means permitted. As for the prospects of Kevin O'Brien going into early retirement, one can only hope. But then who would fill his crucial role of waging war on infidel liberals?

Finally, Anne, keep the questions coming. That's always the best way to get answers. You ask a couple of complicated questions, for which short answers are difficult, at least for me. I may return to these questions later in subsequent posts, but here goes the short version:

Lots of people have just fallen out of the newspaper habit, as attention spans get shorter and more options for getting news abound. U.S. newspaper circulation peaked in 1984 and has been falling ever since, but that's just cumulative totals. Circulation declines actually began in the early '70s, if not sooner. (but do remember that the more important number is readership, which is higher than circulation, because about two people are believe to read each copy, on rough average). And on average, circulation only comprises about 20% of newspaper income, with advertising funding the balance. So newspapers are going after the right readers (you know what that means, the well-off), not just high total numbers.
And of course none of this even considers the online equation. Lots of print circulation is falling because it's free online, in many cases. Still, the Wall Street Journal and NYTimes have stayed about static in total print circ. in recent years, as has the NY Post and USA Today. They're about it in terms of papers that haven't suffered declines.

A couple of additional things on the business side have recently added to circulation losses: the federal Do Not Call list has hit papers hard, since they have traditionally gotten and maintained readers through telemarketing. Plus, a few papers got caught falsely inflating their circulations, which caused a major uproar and could even lead to people going to jail for fraud, and has caused the rest to become more conservative with the numbers.

As for free papers, the last of the big ones to convert to free was the Village Voice, which learned along with the rest of the industry that it was costing them more to collect the nominal price of the paper than they recouped. Plus, larger circulation through the free model allows them to charge more for ads. Hope that at least began to address your questions.

 
At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

Thanks, John. Your comment about the economics of collecting subscription revenue is particularly interesting.

 
At 8:12 PM, Anonymous jdw said...

NY Post circulation is an anomaly predicated upon the subway and bus commuter culture of NYC. In tabloid format, the paper is made for such a market. As for USA Today, let's remember that it is distributed in just about every hotel and motel across this fair land. Newspaper circulation is bound to continue to decline and the Plain Dealer brass should not consider the decline to reflect its particular level of quality.

 
At 9:32 PM, Blogger Chris Thompson said...

Newspapers lose circulation for a very simple reason. They no longer provide information that readers need to make decisions about their daily lives. Or, at least, they no longer provide in a format that works for the reader. All the hand-wringing in the world won't change that. Nor will focus groups or redesigns.

Can the slide be stopped? Probably not, but if newspapers published more news that they people couldn't get anywhere else they'd have a shot. Go through a newspaper (ads and all) and determine how much of the content is available elsewhere in more convenient or efficient formats. Then take what's left. There's not much there, is there?

 
At 10:46 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

JDW, you're right about the NYPost, which is a different animal in several ways, including that it's run as a loss leader for Rupert Murdoch's larger empire. But as for USA Today, those bulk sales, of which they have more than anyone, wouldn't be counted in those official circulation figures, under the rules of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the industry's referee.

And Chris, I'd have to agree with all of what you've said. I also agree with Slate's Jack Shafer, who recently observed that while interest in newspapers is waning, interest in the news is at perhaps an all-time high. Newspapers will prosper/survive to the extent that they realize they're in the news business, not necessarily the newspaper business, just as railroads had to learn that they need to be in the transportation business rather than merely the railroad business. Thus all eyes turn to digital conversion.

 
At 11:37 AM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Looking forward to the Clifton exchange.

I especially like the ending in the FT piece,coming from the blogmaster at WWW, that Mr. Clifton enjoys "working with wood." Nice.

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You know, Miles, hard as it might be to believe, that small bit of parallel construction never even occurred to me at the time. Then again, I suppose some things just become mentally ingrained, so it might have been unconscious.

I have heard from some Clifton fans--well, okay, one Clifton fan thus far--who thought it was flip. That wasn't intended either. But when you come right down to it, I suppose I did intend some lightness and irony, and to end with a twist. Just a writerly habit, I suppose.

But this actually relates to an earlier point in this thread, which Chris Thompson brought out, about why newspapers are losing audience. I think, and should have added, that some of it certainly has to do with how deadly dull and hyperserious many newspapers tend to be. Sometimes, they would be better off by having a sense of humor (which by definition means an injection of personal voice), as many of the best papers do. As the immortal New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling said, a good paper can be more fun than a quiet girl. Or was it a pretty girl? Well, whatever--I'll check it later and get back to you.

 
At 1:14 PM, Blogger Bob Rhubart said...

Several months ago, On the Media (at least I think it was that program) did a piece on the waning newspaper business. One of the commentators went into a wry but on-target assessment of what it takes to get a newspaper into the hands of its readers: the trees, the printing, the trucks, and so on, all to deliver what amounts to an ink-stained wad of pulp, produced and distributed to suit an out-dated mass-audience business model.

In contrast to the on-demand news access the Web provides, reading a newspaper is nothing more than a pleasant, romanticized ritual. The future of the newspaper has everything to do with the ratio of news to paper.

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I agree with much of that, Bob (and I welcome you as a first-time commenter whose blog I have admired). But I also know this: I begin my day every day with a hard copy of the New York Times, which I lovingly tear into over my coffee in a ritual that could never, ever be duplicated online. And while I could read nearly all of the paper (except the columnists) for free online, nothing replaces the physical experience of reading the paper version, for me. But then, I'm in my mid-40s, and there will be fewer people like me every month propping up the paper side of the industry. It's just a simple fact.

But to me, this isn't an either/or, it's an and/also proposition. I also love that I can reach 1.8 million smart, inquisitive readers around the country, even the world, through pieces I write in the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that's now down to an anemic 60,000 copies in print. But their pristine brand name, illustrious history and smart investment in a comprehensive website have led to a rebirth of the paper on the web. They stand as one of the best examples of how to manage the digital transition. But no paper has yet figured out how to replace the dollars online that are lost the old print way. Let's hope for democracy's sake that does come before too long.

So the future will be all about balancing the paper and online companions. It goes without saying that I also enjoy having access to hundreds of free newspapers and magazines online that I wouldn't or couldn't pay to read in print. But the day of that free lunch may be coming to an end, and as someone who thinks long and hard about how to balance my own personal need to support a family with my writerly instinct to reach as wide an audience as possible, I'm the last person to criticize any publication for figuring out new ways to charge for its product. I'm hopeful that innovations yet to come will help solve these problems, and support people like me and lots of others who feel no choice but to continue doing this work.

 
At 12:21 AM, Blogger Bob Rhubart said...

You'll get no argument from me regarding the pleasure of a real, hold-in-your-hands, soak-up-spilled-coffee newspaper. But that's an experience that has value to a shrinking audience. The future of the newspaper as we know it will involve some mix of online and hard copy. I think the Sunday paper, in some form, will survive, but the daily newspaper can't compete.

For writers, the work will continue to change. Just as the Industrial Revolution made a dying breed of many skilled craftsman, so, too, has the Information Age brought sweeping changes to the business of generating and delivering the content that used to fill newspapers and magazines. The very same changes are already causing a massive upheaval in the broadcast industry. TV ratings have hit historic lows, the audience for terrestrial radio is evaporating, CD sales continue to tank (in inverse proportion to online music sales), and book publishers are struggling. In a networked, computer-driven world, vast segments of the white collar world are meeting the same fate that befell their blue-collar counterparts beginning thirty years ago.

Things change. Resistance is futile, adaptation is survival, and it's far too late for me to attempt coherent expression...

 
At 9:52 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

"Resistance is futile." Now that reminds me of a 1950s B movie line...But of course you're right about all of that, Bob.

 
At 9:47 AM, Blogger K-Oh said...

We should all give our growing or grown-up children a year's subscription to the NYTimes and see if they develop the habit. After all, they grew up seeing us hunched over the paper every morning and sprawled on the couch with it every night. We need to wake up that memory!

 
At 12:39 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great point, Kristen. We do need to nourish these habits. But then, with the price of a full year's subscription to the NYT, which I already gladly pay once, I admit my mind begins ranging to other cheaper possibilities. Thankfully, both my kids still live with me, and we can share the paper.

By the way, I hope all my readers will follow your link to read your marvelous new blog, which nicely captures your formidable writing voice. And while they're at it, perhaps they'll click over to your personal site as well and learn a little more about your book, which I hope might prompt a visit to the bookstore or Amazon.com. I'm so thrilled you've decided to take the plunge...

 
At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a little of out place here...

but John...do you have any inside info on the present ohio supreme court and its funding mechanisms?

and are there ANY journalist in ohio who would dare to write about how this high court has become the bastion of major donor funds and
taken a tilt to opposition politics that would make sadaam
smile?

lonely in the legalsphere

 

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