Editorial: Reality Check

In 2012, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans caused uproar in the community and news industry when it announced it would no longer be published as a daily newspaper. Instead, it would only be delivered three times a week so that the newsroom could focus on gathering news online. As that was going on, the Baton Rouge Advocate expanded into the market and started to print and distribute a daily newspaper called the New Orleans Advocate.

For six years, the two publications competed side by side, covering one of the most populated cities in the country. That is until Advocate owners John and Dathel Georges made a surprise announcement in May that they were purchasing the Times-Picayune from Advance Local. The combined New Orleans Advocate and Times-Picayune made its debut this summer, ending the city’s paper war.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the Vindicator turned 150 years old on June 25. But instead of celebrating the milestone, the newspaper announced it would be closing at the end of August due to “great financial hardships.”

Publisher Betty Brown Jagnow and general manager Mark Brown revealed in the announcement, “We did everything we could to increase revenue, including raising the price of the newspaper, and to drive advertising revenue into the paper and website. However, in spite of our best efforts, advertising and circulation revenues have continued to decline, and The Vindicator continues to operate at a loss.”

The family had owned and operated the paper for 132 years.

“A lot of those families are tired,” Joshua Benton wrote in Nieman Lab. “They’ve been fighting the demise of print advertising for more than a decade now, they see the direction things are headed, and they don’t like the idea of treating breakeven as a stretch goal.”

According to Benton, the Vindicator did have two potential buyers, but no one came through. Perhaps it was the fact the Vindicator had been losing money for 20 of the past 22 years. Still, it’s a troubling sign when newspaper chains like GateHouse, Gannett and McClatchy aren’t interested in saving a city’s only newspaper.

Without a local newspaper, it’s the citizens of Youngstown that will end up losing the most.

“The loss of the Youngstown Vindicator every morning doesn’t mean that the region’s 200,000 will no longer be getting information,” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote. “It just increases the likelihood they’ll be getting bad information—intentionally manipulated, and sometimes out-and-out fakery.

Brown even told the Washington Post that without a journalist watchdog, he was “scared for the community.”

But not all hope is lost in Youngstown. ProPublica recently announced it would expand its Local Reporting Network into the city and pay the salary for one full-time investigative reporter for a year.

What happened in New Orleans and Youngstown is a reality check for the publishing world: Entertainment Weekly magazine recently announced it was going monthly (although it’s going to keep Weekly in the name), and satirical magazine Mad, founded in 1952, would no longer be published monthly, but instead only publish special editions.

Just last month, the 114-year-old African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, announced it would cease print operations and transition to a digital-only platform.

Hiram E. Jackson, CEO of Real Times Media (the Defender’s owner), said the move would help them reach more readers and make them more “nimble.”

“I see this as our responsibility to show what the future looks like,” he explained.

As more papers scale back and close, we have to imagine what the future of news will look like. Our feature stories this month may help paint that picture. Rob Tornoe writes about how journalism is reinventing itself by creating its own media landscape, and Evelyn Mateos breaks down several components on what makes a newspaper profitable, starting with having a compelling mission. It’s something simple, but it will make all the difference.

Editor’s Note: Some good news–in July, the Compass Experiment, a local news initiative founded by McClatchy and Google, announced it was going to launch a news site to cover Youngstown. 

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4 thoughts on “Editorial: Reality Check

  • August 9, 2019 at 8:02 am
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    It grows tiring to continue pointing out that there has never been a better time, financially, to publish a daily newspaper in the last 150 years than today. The cost per printed page is still the same, not adjusted for inflation, but the same as it was in 1869. Meanwhile, the cost per page for production has actually fallen from the price paid in 1869. What is entirely lacking is the entrepreneurial commitment to capitalize on this advantage.

    Rather than go to press, publishing companies have destructively increased cover and subscription prices, committed scarce resources to utterly pointless web products, and slashed content to a point where no reasonable person would think of buying a single copy, let alone subscribe.

    Youngstown, New Orleans and other newspaper markets are not dying from the World Wide Web. They are dying from greed and incompetence.

    Reply
  • August 9, 2019 at 9:31 am
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    Any smart phone, tablet owner can download free news apps and with a touch of a finger follow news stories and much more 24/7. Elvis has left the building!

    Reply
  • August 12, 2019 at 10:15 am
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    I don’t think the situations in Youngstown and New Orleans are comparable at all.

    Youngstown is about the demise of a local newspaper. New Orleans is about the market rejecting a turn away from print toward digital.

    In New Orleans, The Advocate came in with a 7-day daily printed product, eventually bought out their competitor, and has committed to continuing a print product 7 days per week. Both their print and digital products have been embraced by the market.

    So the New Orleans story is actually an advisory that print is not dead — but of course it depends on the market and the commitment of the owners. Part of the reason for the Advocate’s success, certainly, is that its ownership is local and keenly aware of the wants and needs of the New Orleans market. The Times-Picayune, on the other hand, was owned by a New York City corporation that made the decision to downgrade print and focus on digital, apparently without truly understanding the New Orleans market.

    New Orleans and the surrounding area now have the best of both worlds — a first-class daily newspaper that also operates a very well-received digital product.

    Reply
  • August 15, 2019 at 12:39 pm
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    It’s interesting to see what’s happening with hometown weekly newspapers. They are dying as there are less locally based businesses to advertise and younger people don’t pick up newspapers. They use a phone.

    Social media is not news but many people live and breathe Facebook. To the non tech savvy, it IS the internet and their news source. Facebook actually makes you say yes to leaving their platform if you have links to stories on your Facebook page that supports your print or online product.

    New Orleans is an aberration. It’s not the example of the thousands of square miles of the US that has a weekly paper that has almost no staff and a product full of news releases. Most don’t have staff to do any important news and the local sports stories that parents want to see involving their kids are generally a week behind the event. The self appointed “sports booster” Facebook fan has a page with really bad images and not much “news” that everyone sees before the local weekly is delivered and the one or two images with a four paragraph story ins’t enough to make advertisers swoon. It’s already old news.

    Space on a printed page is really expensive compared to the electronic publishing cost. I date from the days of running copy through a waxer for paste up. Publishers ignored the web and let alternatives beat them to a good online product for the masses in the sparsely populated areas of the country.

    You don’t see Casey’s, McDonalds, Dollar Tree or Walmart advertising in local weekly papers. Where is the revenue going to come from that supports a good print product? Local businesses like Harry’s plumbing and Sarah’s restaurant just post things on Facebook and think it’s the way to “advertise”. That’s reality.

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