By: M.L. STEIN
LARGER U.S. DAILIES are focusing more attention on improving editorial content and increasing circulation than they did four years ago, while small dailies are concentrating more on the bottom line as they face stringent economic pressures, a new study reveals.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of newspapers with over 50,000 circulation reported in 1997 that “improving the news product” was one of their top three goals ? a 26% jump from what they stated in 1993, according to the survey by Washington State University. But only 39% of dailies under 50,000 listed editorial betterment as a top priority, dwelling instead on “maximizing profits,” said researcher David Demers, an assistant professor of communication.
“The findings suggest that increasing competition and new technologies are forcing all newspapers to revamp their goals, but those papers under 25,000 circulation may be less able to adapt,” said Demers. “Many don’t have the human and capital resources needed to invest in new technologies and online services. We’re a long way from reading small newspapers their last rites, but the increased focus on profits suggests that smaller newspapers are facing additional economic pressures.”
Demers based his conclusions on data obtained from two national probability mail surveys of publishers and top-level editors at nearly 192 daily newspapers in the fall of 1993 and 179 in the winter of last year. Respondents were given a list of 22 organizational goals and asked to rate them in terms of how much emphasis management puts on key goals, from improving the news product to cutting costs. Demers said that although most of the goals got high ratings, differences marked those deemed most important: improving the news product, responding to reader needs and increasing circulation. Almost half of the papers marked one of the goals, and two of them, improving news content and boosting circulation, posted “significant” hikes from 1993 to 1997, he added.
“The increased emphasis on circulation suggests that newspapers large and small see circulation as a key to their long-term viability,” Demers went on. However, he noted, only the papers above 25,000 put more emphasis on improving the news product ? 39% to 65%. Papers under 25,000 rated that goal similarly ? 39% to 41% ? over the period. Smaller dailies also placed less importance on doing the job well ? 31% to 43% for the bigger papers ? and also on hiring the best employees (4% vs. 12%).
Observed Demers: “Historically, larger newspapers have always had a competitive advantage because they benefit from economies of scale and can produce a newspaper for a much lower cost per copy. Larger newspapers also are investing more money in technology and online services, which may explain why they are placing much more emphasis on improving the news product.”
In contrast, he continued, small-town papers generally don’t have such advantages and are located in markets where circulation is already saturated or where numbers of potential readers and advertisers are stagnant or declining. Since costs continue to rise, smaller dailies “appear to be focusing more on the bottom line,” Demers commented.
“This should help destroy the myth that small, entrepreneurial newspapers place less emphasis on profits,” said Demers. “If the goal is to reduce emphasis on profits and increase emphasis on quality, then bigger is better. Large organizations have the human and capital resources to improve the news product.”
Demers said his findings confirm his 1996 study of 314 dailies. It showed that large newspaper companies ? even though they are more profitable ? assign less importance to profits and more to product quality.
“Large corporate enterprises are structurally organized to maximize profits, to be sure,” he elaborated, “but they are controlled on a day-to-day basis by professional managers, not the owners. While a secure level of profitability is crucial for any business to survive, professional managers also seek to maximize benefits for themselves. This means a greater concern for goals other than profit-making, such as product quality. For journalists in particular, the highest and most prestigious award is the Pulitzer Prize, not profits.”
Owners and stockholders play a relatively small role in determining what stories to cover, what goes on the front page, whether to publish a controversial story or what editorial position to take, Demers found. One survey-stated goal in the latest poll ? treating employees well ? fell in importance at large and small papers, Demers said. In 1993, 33% of all dailies named it among the top three goals; in 1997, only 19% rated it that high. And at bigger papers the goal of being the “best” was cited by only 24% of papers, down from 42% in the earlier poll.
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher, January 31, 1998) [Caption]