What are daily newspapers doing wrong that they are always dying?

The mergers are relentless, and even the new purchasers say it will be a stuggle to keep all the combined papers going.
Yet, despite the trend for classified ads to go to the web, the display ads are growing every year. Go to the reference section of the library and look at all the skinny old papers bound into albums.

The papers are fatter and fatter with ads.

I delivered big city daily papers in my youth and would easily hold three rolled up in my left hand and toss another with my right. Now the same paper, after eating all the one-time competitors, is four or five times the bulk.

Plus, despite getting more pages of news from the wire services, they also have more local in-depth series, in house columnists, local reviewers, etc.

Yet they are crying the blues and ordering their own advance obit written, just in case.

How can those things go together? What’s wrong with the business model?

I’m no marketer, but I do know that every time I read a newspaper, I’ve already read everything of interest here, on FARK, or SFGate.

I thought SFGate only posted things that had already appeared in print.

Well the rates they can charge for ads depend on their circulation numbers, and circulation is down because people are getting their news from other sources. A paper might be selling more ads but still generating less revenue.

I believe the cost of newsprint (paper) might also be a factor. It used to be a lot cheaper.

A lot of people blame Craigslist. Newspapers (used) get a ton of money through classifieds. Now, not as much. The internet does it so much better.

My guess is, “Publishing newspapers.”

That must be it. They obviously must be charging less for the ads, since there are so many more ads and apparently less revenue coming in. Either that or their budget is too high.

Could be a vicious cycle: I am getting fed up with the advertising practices in my local paper. My Sunday paper is now 4 or 5 inches thick, and most of that is advertising. And apparently people are starting to ignore the advertising from sheer overload, because now the paper has resorted to hiding certain sections by sandwiching them in between full-page advertisements. Lots of people like to read the Sunday comics, so what they do now is split the comics into 2 different sections, seperate them, wrap each one inside of an ad, and bury them deep inside the paper. This forces the reader to spend 5 or 10 minutes opening each advertisement to see if the comics are inside. They’ve even found a way to make the pages somehow stick together so that the advertisement easily seperates from the adjoining pages, but the content section clings to the advertising page.

Well I’m really getting to the point that I’m considering cancelling my subscription. It’s getting to be an ordeal to read the paper rather than a pleasure. I’m sure others feel the same way, and the more people who cancel, the less money they’ll make per ad, the more ads they’ll have to run, and the more people who will get fed up and stop taking the paper.

Newspapers keep getting superseded by newer media. They’ve been losing readers to television for decades, and now to the Web as well.

I hear buses and passenger trains are a lot less profitable than they used to be, too.

I work for a newspaper. We made money hand over fist before 9-11; afterwards, we were in the embarrassing position of not being able to sell papers during a war with a local angle. 9-11 was the watershed event when people started getting their information online on a massive scale and noticing that newspapers only update their information once a day (Actually more, but how many editions of the same day’s newspaper did you ever buy?). It was the event that put print media in direct competition with internet media for the first time, and print media haven’t recovered.

Newspapers responded with consolidations, mergers, and rapid-fire new business plans. I’m sure we were in a similar boat when radio and television appeared.

Given that the current trend for media consolidation means a sharp decline in local coverage and more control given to a handful of conglomerates, I can’t say I’m particularly missing “old media” much these days.

I’m often on SFGate (the San Francisco Chronicle’s website) late in the evening, and the next day’s non-time-sensitive features seem to start showing up around 11pm, a few hours before the printed papers are available.

For breaking news stories, of course, they’re updating constantly, so SFGate.com can easily be more than 24 hours ahead of the print version of the Chronicle.

So, I’m with Troy McClure SF on this. For frequent events like bombings in Baghdad, I have to do a conscious date-check when reading the print copy, to figure out if it’s another 60+ people killed or the same bombing that I read about at SFGate.com, 36 hours earlier.

One other thing that hasn’t really been touched on here yet:

Newspapers cost money to buy, but Internet news is, by and large, completely free of charge (besides the cost of having a net connection in the first place).

I find the local papers generally to be full of vapid lifestyle stories, almost literally at the “OMG I saw a woman at the supermarket and she was wearing Ugg boots in summer!11!!Shift+one” level.

There’s just no reason for me to buy the paper anymore, and I suspect the same is true for most other people these days, too.

I’m surprised no-one has mentioned demographics. Younger folks are more “wired” than ever, and the daily paper seems to be something of an achronism.

You guys are close, (RT, you had to know I’d appear for this one!) but missing a few things.

The biggest problems facing daily newspapers right now all center on circulation issues. People are turning from them because other venues are available. For national and international news there are currently three means by which such information can get to the news-consumer faster than newspapers: Television, Radio, and our good friend the Internet. (How we love it so!)

Newspapers, with their historical focus on timeliness, are now being beaten to the punch on a regular basis on the overarching stories at the national and international level. This invalidates a lot of their readership-draw and puts them on the defensive.

In addition, it’s true that the readership demographic is getting older. But really that just shows a part of the skew in my paragraph three, above, as it’s the younger sort who are more apt to get news electronically.

But it’s not over by any means. Free newspapers, particularly weekly ones, are still growing at a rate of more than 1% per year (according to E&P magazine in a 1996-2004 study).

Why is this? I’m glad you asked. Weekly newspapers have an opportunity to focus on a more narrow and local angle on stories. These are stories that might not be ground-shaking in importance, but they are the sort of story where readers gain knowledge that is particulary useful to them: Weather, events and happening, local sports, local government, and so forth. This sort of stuff is more community-based and it’s possible to build a happy readership base by providing that information.

In short, there’s still a market for the sort of material only newspapers can provide, but it’s currently a moving target and the larger ones are wrong-footed and trying to adjust.

Former newspaper editor and current mascom (junior college) instructor here:

The impact of other “newer” media on newspaper circulation is overstated. It’s more a simple matter of economics. The real culprit is corporate ownership. A newspaper owned by a local company or family is more vibrant, more exciting to read and more willing to take chances, whether in news coverage, opinion, layout and appearance and so on. A newspaper owned by a distant owner is less willing to do this because ownership is interested only in profit. A local owner is interested in influence and prestige, and is better able to react to reader interests.

Yes, all owners are interested in profit. But a local owner is constantly aware (because he is constantly told by his wealthy peers) of his newspaper’s place in the readers’ minds. He knows when people become less willing to walk to the driveway to pick up the paper, because they tell him.

Here are some examples of this in action: When William Hearst was headquartered in New York, his Journal was the leading New York City newspaper in terms of circulaton, even though the Times was (from a strictly journalistic viewpoint) a better newspaper. Hearst lived in New York; Adolph Ochs, owner of the Times, lived in Chattanooga, Tenn., after first acquiring the Times; that paper wouldn’t seriously challenge the Journal or Joseph Pulitzer’s World in circulation numbers until Ochs relocated to New York City. Later, when Hearst moved to California, the Journal-American declined rapidly and was sold. While Pulitzer was in New York, the World thrived; when he moved back to his hometown of St. Louis, it declined.

We can see a similary relationship between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky, Denver’s first newspaper, flourished until it was sold to the Cincinnati-based Scripps group in 1926. The Denver Post, owned by the Denver-based Bonfils family from its creation and through much of the 20th century, constantly beat the News in circulation; the News nearly died, but was saved by a massive format overhaul in the 1940s; it still struggled against the Post, and didn’t make significant inroads in circulation until Helen Bonfils sold the newspaper to the Los Angeles Times in the early 1980s. The Post suffered circulation declines until William Singleton bought the newspaper and moved to Denver to base his news empire there in 1987. The Post essentially won the Denver newspaper war when it forced the Scripps-owned News into a joint operating agreement.

The point is this: In almost every case, when a newspaper’s owner lives in that community, whether New York, Los Angeles, Denver or out here in the boondocks, his or her daily newspaper thrives. That’s because the local owner takes a personal interest in the newspaper, and cares about more than just profit. As a result, he reaps greater profit. The absentee owner, however, cares only about efficiently running a profitable business – and that’s not a good business model for a daily newspaper.

I know, I’ll be scoffed at, and naysayers will turn up the odd instance of distance ownership actually succeeding against local ownership, but there are always cases of owners who simply shouldn’t be in the newspaper business. But I stand by my contention – local ownership of a daily newspaper equals success; distance ownership equals failure.

Actually, to a great extent, I concur, Sunrazor. Though I do think the lack of interest in getting national-level news from newspaper due to the speeded up newscycle.

Your description could nearly be a business case for my paper, truth be told. I started it because the local dailies (THREE! In a market of about 40,000!) are all owned by the same medium-sized corporation that’s been around for over 100 years. Their site claims 39 newspapers in more than 10 states as well as other media and marketing properties.

In the end, though, locally they ARE unresponsive to the community, their coverage is frequently just plain WRONG (I’ve caught and publicized several glaring errors), and most of the three papers is AP stories. They have six reporters. I have six reporters. They publish six times per week, I publish once (for now).

All these things, and the disdain in which they were held, is what spelled ‘market opportunity’ to me. I spent a good deal of time just ‘getting known’ around town (I’m not native to this small community…spending money, joining clubs, lecturing in journalism at the local community college, all those sorts of things. Then I floated the idea to a few prominent citizens (Chamber of Commerce, local rich guys, college presidents, that sort of thing) and, receiving encouragement, announced a launch in one month.

Of course at that point the Editor-in-Chief I’d lined up backed out and I had to scramble to find a new one! Agh!

But the new one is an established reporter in the area. She’s less organized than I’d like but great at getting stories and contacts. To date we’ve broken 10 stories in the last quarter that are large ones and that the daily competition didn’t even reach for until we ran them.


Wed (our street date): “Mayor being investigated by police”
Thursday (the competition): “Investigation Reveals Nothing: Case Closed”
Wed next (us): “Investigation ongoing says Chief of Police”

I swear, their response to our story was to call the mayor and parrot his statement even though it was false.

It’s an interesting time. Urf. Everyone said they wanted real journalism in town. Now that they’ve got some they’re a little nervous about it.

So, yes, lack of responsive ownership is important. But if that were always the case those dailies with local ownership, and there’s a goodly number, wouldn’t also be declining. I contend that lack of interest in that news format for other than local is indicated in the circulation trends.

Heh. Here in London we currently have no less than three free daily newspapers (Metro in the morning, Thelondonpaper and London Lite in the evening) plus the Evening Standard and all the national papers. It can’t last, and at the very least one of the free evening ones will have to go, but for now it’s interesting seeing how they are squaring off against each other.
BBC article

I salute you, Jonathan Chance, for doing what every disgruntled newspaper reporter (now there’s a redundancy for you!) has always wanted to do. You are either courageous, enterprising and industrious, or you are just plain insane. I’m hoping for the former.

A couple of points I left out of my previous post:

The Internet isn’t any competition to newspapers because they can start web sites – and most have – as easily and cheaply as anyone else can. And they already have the newsgathering, writing, editing and design staff to put out better web pages than anyone else. In fact, the Internet helps newspapers even overcome television’s and radio’s traditional advantages by offering the same real-time video and audio streaming those media offer, with the same equipment they already use for print newsgathering. Whether they actually do any of that depends largely on willingness to take the chance, or even partner with a local broadcast outlet.

Demographically, Americans are still subscribing to newspapers as we get older. I don’t have a cite readily at hand, but I recently saw a study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors that indicates that, while the number of new subscribers in their twenties is going down, the number of new subscribers in their 40s is going up. The “action message” of the article was that newspapers need to reach out to young people with the internet so they have brand loyalty once those readers reach “real newspaper” subscription age.

Increasing costs, of course, have a role in all of this, too. Newsprint is the single biggest expense of any newspaper, even larger than human resources, and can sometimes be 40 percent of a newspaper’s publishing expense. On the other hand, technology is helping bring down some costs, including labor, but not as fast.

Finally, the argument for local ownership can sometimes backfire. We have a locally-owned free weekly here in my hometown, but the owner is far more interested in using her newspaper to make friends than in being a serious journalist. Being an ethical journalist committed to doing what’s best for the community is a sure way to leave you feeling alone and unloved sometimes, as **Jonathan Chance ** and **Krokodil ** will no doubt attest. On the other hand, my friends at the local daily (which I edited for 7 years) all seem more interested in putting together a clip file that will attract the attention of a larger newspaper than in doing what is best for the community. On balance, however, the daily does a better job than the weekly, even though it is owned by the Denver Post, which is 120 miles away. That may not seem like much, but I can assure you, Billy Dean Singleton is far less interested in my hometown than he is in Denver … he doesn’t live here, and he isn’t from here, and neither are any of his local staffers.