By: Greg Mitchell
Apparently those who say that readers may not even notice the results of cutbacks at newspapers could be wrong.
Mike Needs, public editor at Knight Ridder’s Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, felt the need to address the issue in a column on Sunday. Or as he explained, “What’s going on?
Many a recent call and e-mail have started with those words, and you aren’t asking about the news or weather.”
In making cuts, some newspaper execs suggest they are only cutting fat and the news product does not suffer at all. But Needs revealed that at his paper the newshole for
sports and news has been reduced, the daily TV listings chopped by more than half. For a time, there was only one page devoted to editorials and commentary instead of two, and some sections of the paper were folded into others or eliminated for a day.
Then he quoted some reader comment. One called the Beacon Journal “a newspaper in disarray.” Another wrote, “It’s no wonder your paper is for sale.” Then there was the usual charge that the paper was allegedly too far to the left of its readership.
“Whew! Yes, venomous for sure,” Needs replied. “But, shutting the doors is not going to happen. The Beacon Journal is far too profitable, even as its parent company has hung a for-sale sign.”
He then offered the following perspective.
? More people are reading Beacon Journal information than ever before, once you factor in the high number of Ohio.com readers. Online revenue is growing dramatically, though its effect on the company’s bottom line remains relatively small.
? In 2005, the Beacon Journal — one of 32 Knight Ridder newspapers — projected a level of profit it could not meet without cutting some expenses. Most visible to you was the savings from fewer pages of news. After people, paper is a newspaper’s biggest expense.
? In December, not much news occurs and readership dips, as most of us are distracted by holiday demands. As they will in similar circumstances in future months, the editors decided not to devote expensive news pages to filler wire-service articles. Admittedly, total space for local news and sports was cut, though no event of consequence was ignored.
? Big institutional investors — insurance companies and billion-dollar asset holders — are the real owners of most nationwide newspaper companies. Their pressure for high profits has been relentless, forcing layoffs, buyouts and cutbacks from coast to coast.
? The information industry is in transition, trying to balance the preferences of longtime readers who want their newspaper to stay the same and the marketplace message sent by nonreaders who find little value in it.
Let’s face it, this thing we call the daily newspaper just doesn’t occupy the same position in people’s lives that it once did. Newspapers urgently need to find a new space to occupy, one that fills the need for information in more ways for more people, all the while satisfying Wall Street.
Maybe that’s online. Maybe it’s a different kind of newspaper — smarter, more efficient, more focused on what’s really important to you.
Akron reader Dick Freeman recently wrote, “Hang on. Others have been through worse and this is not the end of the world. You will be amazed at what good will come from this tectonic plate shift in the news business. The thirst for current, accurate information has never been stronger.”
He’s right. Meeting that shifting demand for information under tight money constraints is the challenge for 2006. But it’s also the reason for optimism. After all, you want information and the Beacon Journal is an information company.
What’s going on?
A lot. In this rapidly evolving news business, though, refusing to change is not the answer.