Newspapers: Sublimate to Survive
The Times: caught in the wheels of change
By Bruce McKinney
I have for several months been thinking about the future of newspapers. My family owned weeklies in upstate New York for fifty years and regularly, at the dinner table while I was growing up, talked about the business the way a doctor might talk about a patient. Not surprisingly, long before I learned to drive I was selling "Congratulations to the Graduates," Christmas Greetings and subscriptions by phone. Later I made calls to collect "misplaced" invoices. Occasionally, when pressed, I wrote up football and basketball games and the infrequent track meet but was always partial to the business side of what was hard-scrabble journalism. In the small towns of New Paltz, Highland, Milton, Marlborough and Wallkill where we published, by the time I was 24 and heading off to start my own newspaper in nearby Orange County, I must have spoken to every person several times and sold to them ads and subscriptions. A single call might start out as a subscription renewal, become an update on someone gone to work in New York and end with a birth notice for the coming week. Today the world is characterized by distance and separation. The world I grew up in was open, close and mostly friendly. My ticket to connection was then the newspapers we McKinneys published just as it is today AE Monthly and the Americana Exchange which Mike Stillman and I write for while Jenny, my wife and Diana, Mike's, see to the organizing of more than 200,000 auction lots a year. In the fast unfolding conversion of print and paper that is everyday a wild-west show I explain it this way: we herd cats.
Growing up in the blue-collar newspaper business gave me an appreciation for evaluating chance. I knew almost everyone who bought and sold in Southern Ulster because I went to see them to sell advertising and stayed to hear their stories. I asked about and was often rewarded with the full details of business careers, how they got from there to here, the mistakes they made, the circumstances and luck that defined their lives. I spoke with widows who recalled husbands whose dream it was to own a shop on Main Street, bar owners who hadn't had a drink in twenty years, disillusioned men who sold downtown locations for the money to build better stores on the outskirts that few visited. People had time to talk and I always had time to listen. For my effort I'd bring back a $7.50 ad and use every skill I could muster to make it work. It often did. In time they let me choose the merchandise, set the discount and write the descriptions. For me it was never about the money. It was about getting it right.
In the newspaper business, as in most others, success was a complicated amalgam of opportunity and hard work. The better the opportunity the more competition, the weaker the opportunity the more work. The family newspapers looked easier than they were and so attracted competition while never yielding financial returns commensurate with the work involved. My Mother called it slavery but for someone coming of age it was a PhD in making good choices.
It was there I learned that newspapers, at their best, are an integral part of readers' lives. You'd find a used bike in the classified, read about the proposed new sidewalk, learn that the Fire Department responded to two calls this past week, see your name in the school honor roll, and feel connected. Local newspapers were, like the schools and churches, strands that bound communities together. As an advertising salesman I was one of the bees that carried the pollen and was rewarded with perspective on most of the flowers in the meadow.
Newspapers: Sublimate to Survive
A world without newspapers: unthinkable
In the 1950s and 60s weekly newspapers faced an uncertain future while dailies for the most part looked secure. Their presses ran. They had many Linotype's and didn't live in fear of breakdowns. They had full time pressmen, compositors, people to answer phones and others to prepare bills and deliver newspapers. We had about 15 full and part-time help and almost everyone did 2 or 3 jobs. If the dailies weren't quite Brahmans, they were at least Vaishya [the merchants] while the weeklies rarely reached to Shudra and were not infrequently the untouchables.
New York State Press Association acknowledgements were possible, Pulitzers were not.
The area cities had dailies. Poughkeepsie had its Journal; Newburgh the Evening News; Kingston, the Freeman and Middletown, the Record. The Evening News was the first and to date the only one to take hemlock, the dose administered by the Middletown Record that commanded the morning and left the mourning to the News that published an afternoon paper for decades. Even in the 1950s afternoon papers were in their twilight. Today the other dailies continue although the Freeman is, by linage, a step behind and possibly endangered. Daily newspaper circulation peaked in the United States in 1971, 14 years after it peaked in the United Kingdom. For most of my life then, while population increased, daily newspaper circulation has decreased. In the 50's we spoke of cycles. Twenty years later it was a trend and today it is downward spiral.
Recently I compared December 1957 front pages with recent examples of three regional and national dailies that have prospered in the past five decades: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. I thought to see into the future by analysing changes. The differences turned out to be small suggesting that newspapers are newspapers rather than dynamic interfaces that relentlessly maintain relevance. In some sense newspapers are billboards that the population drives by. Older people slow down to read the signs, the middle-aged glance but rely more on television, the next generation barely turns their head, looking more and more to the Internet. Loyalty it turns out is to information, not to the mediums of delivery, so newspapers, like books, are increasingly threatened in a world experiencing sweeping changes in information delivery. Only twenty-five years ago fax machines were the future. Today they are slipping into the past. Technology seems to change everything and for print media this is not encouraging.
Newspapers are made up of parts. On the news side there is local and national news, social, sports and obituaries, Sunday magazines and special sections. On the advertising side there is local, regional and national advertising as well as classified advertisements sold by the pica, inch and line. The news hole, the amount of space devoted to news, is a percentage of the paid space.
Newspapers: Sublimate to Survive
The possibility of a world paper
It varies but is relatively constant. Subscriptions don't pay the bills, advertising does so when paid space declines newspapers become smaller. Classified advertising, that for many papers represented 40% of revenue only a few decades ago, is rapidly declining, victim of Craig's List and other online alternatives that are highly effective and free. To counter this loss, display advertising rates have increased but there are limits to what advertisers will pay and other [print and non-print] competitive alternatives to consider. Worse still, the once committed classified reader increasingly reads them on line in a highly flexible form that stacks results according to reader preferences. Readers not only left for a competitor. They left for a better alternative.
On the news side too newspapers are losing ground. They, once the fastest way to get the complete story, are now often a day behind. Radio and television news deliver thin accounts that the serious do not necessarily take seriously but the Internet has begun to offer complete accounts in very close to real time. Even more, it turns out that though newspapers decided, and readers accepted limitations on what is covered, readers have retained a distinctive personal view of what they want and are now opting for synthetic amalgams of news [shall we call them ipapers?] that combine on the fly news on specific subjects from a variety of sources. It's increasingly possible to follow home town news, your field or industry, your children's Little League team, the weather in several cities you'll visit next week and your stock portfolio, all gathered on a single page in real time. Newspapers can contribute to this but have a difficult time being the primary provider that is almost certainly a search engine.
This leaves newspapers weakened, their loyal audience aging, their core functions increasingly better performed on line by others who employ a financial model based on hits rather than copies, on clicks-through rather than column inches. And so they face very tough decisions. The newspaper model, as they have known it, will fail. It was a model that fit the era and that era now passes away. They have taken the first steps to provide web presences where news, if not advertising, is increasingly effectively delivered. They now face the daunting task of organizing themselves into a worldwide news search, in effect a news version of Google, whereby thousands of newspapers, banding together create an electronic world paper based on subscriptions and or advertising and thereby receive compensation for the indispensable fragment they add to everyone's life: the news.
It should happen. It can. Whether it will only time will tell.