Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Going Once, Going Twice

The obituaries for newspapers have come fast & furiously of late -- some due to the actual closure of papers, others from essays predicting the end of newspapers generally. Based upon the latest circulation figures, the prophesied demise of newsprint is certainly supported. According to E&P, New FAS-FAX Shows (More) Steep Circulation Losses:

The Audit Bureau of Circulations released this morning the spring figures for the six months ending March 31, 2009, showing that the largest metros continue to shed daily and Sunday circulation -- now at a record rate.

According to ABC, for 395 newspapers reporting this spring, daily circulation fell 7% to 34,439,713 copies, compared with the same March period in 2008. On Sunday, for 557 newspapers, circulation was down 5.3% to 42,082,707. These averages do not include 84 newspapers with circulations below 50,000 due to a change in publishing frequency.
The NYTimes and Washington Post were the only papers spared the deep decline:
Daily circulation at The New York Times dropped 3.5% to 1,039,031. The Times' Sunday circ was down 1.7% to 1,451,233.

The Washington Post lost 1.6% of its daily circ to 665,383 and 2.3% to 868,965.
Of course, there is no end to reasons why, with the rise of the internet proffered as the main culprit. Yet that's just an easy excuse to avoid looking at the real reason for the failure of newspapers, which is the decline in providing real news and reportage that the public finds useful. As Will Bunch of Attytood said in another context, which applies here as well:

For the most part, we've failed so far. It was more than a little disheartening to learn of the crippling fear inside the newsroom of the New York Times, where editors and reporters were so afraid of offending, so afraid of anyone thinking that the newspaper was taking a side, that the news staffers refused to label globally outlawed practices such as waterboarding as "torture."

* * * *

Almost every flaw of our craft has been on display in the last week or two -- the pleading for a middle-of-the-road answer to a problem where there is no middle ground, the phony "he said, she said" journalism that gives a 50 percent voice to the advocates of American-bred torture, the use of unnecessary anonymous quotes to defend the indefensible, the need for an elite inside-the-Beltway clique to circle the wagons, to insist that aggressive prosecution is only for the crimes that "regular people" commit.

In other words, perhaps journalists should have been exposing torture rather than figuring out what to call it?

See also, Are newspapers to blame for their own demise?.

And then there are the statistics for Philly's own local paper, the Inky:
The Philadelphia Inquirer lost 13.7% of its daily circulation to 288,298. Sunday was hit just as hard, down 12% to 550,400. Daily circulation at its sister publication the Daily News fell 7.6% to 99,103.
The struggles of the Inquirer (and Daily News) are longstanding, with the paper currently in bankruptcy. It was just about 2 years ago that the papers were bought by a group led by adman extraordinaire Brian Tierney. See
The Good News and Bad News. Since then, he has managed to make the paper a shadow of its former self. As I noted not long ago:

I hardly read the print version anymore (although we still get it delivered because my husband likes to read an actual newspaper). Except for one or two articles on the front page, the entire front section of the paper consists of reprints of AP, NYTimes and Washington Post articles. I can read those at the original source, so why bother reading them on a delayed basis in the paper? Even the opinion section mostly carries reprints of op ed pieces from elsewhere, along with the likes of Rick Santorum -- just the sort of outlandish conservative that a liberal town like Philly wants, so I skip over that too. The only thing worth reading is the Local section, to see what is happening in the region. Sometimes, I let the paper pile up over a few days and then just skim through to see what, if anything, is worth reading. This from a person who used to read 5 papers daily (including the Inky), from cover to cover! Overall, with cutbacks in staff and content, the old Philly paper ain't what she used to be.

He has implemented such brilliant moves as imitating the Metro, a free local paper, by adding an "express section" of the paper, summarizing what's covered in the paper elsewhere. The Reader's News Digest. I suppose it may also have been needed to fill up the pages with the missing news from reporters who had been laid off.

Another good move by Tierney was the decision to hold posting news and article on-line until the paper version was printed and delivered -- a great way to stay relevant in a digital world. I guess Tierney adopted the "if you can't fight it, resist it" theory of journalism. However, as co-founder of the Huffington Post, Ken Lerer observed at a recent lecture, Tough Love with Ken Lerer:

Kenneth Lerer to newspapers: You blew it.

The media executive and Huffington Post co-founder, in a lecture he delivered last night to a packed audience at Columbia’s J-School, pulled few punches when it came to newspapers’ culpability for the crisis in which they now find themselves. In the years when the expansion of the Web made it clear that news had an online future—the years when they should have adapted to that future, Lerer said—papers “barricaded themselves in an echo chamber.” Losing, in the process, not only their perspective on the future of news, but also their claim on it.

And then there was the Inky's piece de la resistance, the addition of Rick Santorum to the op-ed page. A brilliant move by Tierney, as I noted before:

I wonder if Inky owner/publisher Brian Tierney is channeling that other great rightwing media mogul, Richard Mellon Scaife, in trying to follow his vision of a publishing empire -- by creating a vast right wing conspiracy like Mellon Scaife. For a glimpse at Tierney, see Inquire No More. It hardly needs to be said that Philly is heavily democratic, but even the Philly 'burbs are trending Democrat these days and most of the remaining Republicans are hardly of the extremist ilk of Santorum. Considering the "popularity" of Santorum in this area (and his overwhelming loss in his last Senate race is further proof of that), it doesn't make sense to alienate so many of your readers at a time that you are trying to increase readership. And Santorum most certainly will -- it's his persona.

In fact, I'm sure for all his efforts on behalf of the paper, Tierney deserves yet another bonus. After all, where would the paper be without him?

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