By: Bernard Caughey Ex-newspaper executive, now consultant Joseph Ungaro offers some ideas about what newspapers can do to survive sp.
MANY OF THE nation's daily newspapers could be out of business within 30 years unless they make major changes to become indispensable to readers and advertisers. That gloomy prediction ? along with some specific ideas about what papers have to do to survive ? was made by newspaper consultant Joseph Ungaro during the recent annual meeting of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors at Hyannis, Mass. Now retired, Ungaro was president of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, which runs the joint operating agreement for the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. Previously, he was managing editor of the Providence Evening Bulletin and publisher of Westchester-Rockland (N.Y.) Newspapers. Ungaro said the papers at highest risk of folding are those with less than 50,000 circulation. Next in danger are those with 50,000 to 100,000 circulation. He said there are 1,323 papers, nearly 84% of the nation's dailies, with less than 50,000 circulation. "More than 900 of those papers are p.m. papers. In my opinion, these are the papers most at risk in the next two decades." Ungaro said some of the problems are beyond the papers' control, including: ? The decline in overall economic activities in the area they serve. ? Changes in demographics of their market and the advent of chain stores, such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, which "drive out local merchants who were the advertisers of the small dailies." In addition, Ungaro said, many of the papers with 50,000 to 100,000 circulation "won't be around in the next decade. Their problems center around the decay of their core city and being competitively squeezed for readers and advertisers by the metros and small dailies and weekly groups that surround them." He said there are 132 papers in this category, representing 8.5% of the nation's dailies. However, Ungaro said he was confident that newspapers won't go the way of the dinosaur and that many will survive and flourish. "But the profit margins of the '80s will not be seen again," he added. "Making that challenge more difficult is that we will need to produce newspapers that contain more information, are better written, more tightly edited with a presentation that makes possible a rapid reading for very busy consumers. And we will have to do it with resources that are not going to increase very much." To survive, Ungaro said, newspapers must adapt and change to emphasize their strengths. The most likely papers to do this, he said, will be the large national, metropolitan and regional papers, with circulations of more than 250,000. He said there are 43 such papers, about 3% of the dailies. "Nearly all of the second tier of papers ? those with circulation of 100,000 to 250,000 a day . . . should also be able to adapt because of the financial resources at their disposal," he said. There are 72 such papers, 4.6% of the country's daily papers. Ungaro said a major factor in survival will be how well newspapers address problems within their control. These problems include: ? "An erratic quality of reporting and editing caused by an excessive turnover of staff, part of which is caused by low pay. Journalists by nature seek the widest audience and will want to move to larger-circulation papers, but better pay will hold them longer and may keep some of them for much longer because of the lifestyle available in some areas. ? "Insufficient editing staff. With the volumes of information available to even the smallest-circulation paper, the most difficult and critical job is selecting and packaging the news. To do it well takes more editors than most small papers now employ. ? "A commitment to local news that goes beyond reporting of meetings and events. TV treats news as entertainment. The daily paper must treat news as how and why it will affect the lives of its readers. There is nothing that makes a newspaper more indispensable than a constant stream of stories on how the acts of business, government and social and cultural institutions will touch their lives. ? "A commitment to produce a 'complete' newspaper. The prevailing wisdom at the moment is that local news is the key to success for the small dailies ? and I agree with that up to a point. "Clearly, without an extensive local news report of all areas of community life . . . there is no reason for a small daily to exist. But as more and more people become one-newspaper readers and as metros improve their local news reports, just local news won't be enough to sustain a solid base of local readers," Ungaro said. Once a metro has more circulation in a small daily's market "the ball game is over because the advertisers no longer need the small daily," he said. "Now the first reaction of an editor and publisher of a small daily about being a complete newspaper is that there is no way we ever will have the news space of a metro. And that's absolutely true. "But that is part of the challenge of doing more with less . . . . With a minimum news content of 10 pages and tight editing, I have seen newspapers put together a very readable complete newspaper," he said. "Don't panic into moving into the morning cycle. The conventional wisdom is that 'everyone' wants a morning paper today. I am not so sure. In some recent conversions, some under-50,000-circulation p.m. papers going morning have lost circulation rather than gained because they went head to head with strong regional or state dailies . . . . "Going into the morning cycle means you are forcing some readers who buy a metro in the morning and a local daily in the afternoon to choose. You also upset some of your longtime readers who are in the habit of reading you in the afternoon after work. "A small daily with a complete news report can turn its p.m. cycle to an advantage by having complete sports and complete local education and government coverage, which essentially are night activity in most communities. ? "Look very hard at your deadlines and presstime. Experience shows that lunchtime is an excellent sales time for newspapers. Evening newspapers have experienced 2% to 5% single-copy sales gains by hitting their newsstands by 11:45 a.m. ? "Make every inch of your news space count . . . . This doesn't mean that every story has to be a brief. But it does mean much tighter editing of stories and more briefs. USA Today does the best job of packing news in. We all can learn from some of their techniques. "Make the newspaper easy to read. This involves not only better printing, color, graphics and headlines but also organization of the news by categories. ? "Late and/or bad delivery service, for whatever reason, will destroy even the very best newspaper. From the newsroom side, getting in one late story very rarely justifies holding the press if it means late delivery. "From the publisher's side, constant attention must be paid to the home-delivery effort. It is a hard and expensive choice, but the era of the 12-year-old newsboy may be over. Customers will put up only so long with Johnny or Mary being late continually because of the pressure of other activities. The metros have learned this lesson and have been rapidly converting to adult carriers. ? " . . . publishers must put extra effort and more creativity in the advertising sales effort. Whenever possible, small dailies in an area should form cooperatives to sell major accounts as a package for the papers as a group. Locally, the effort must include developing business from nontraditional accounts such as services through low-cost directories and special sections that serve the reader as well as the advertisers." Ungaro also told the editors, "We are going through more than just a recession. We are going through structural changes in our society and in the media world. The readers have more ways than ever before to obtain information. The advertisers have more ways than ever before to reach the consumer. "In that environment, the status quo is not good enough if you want to be around 10, 20, 30 years from now," he said. "If you are not indispensable, you are a candidate to join the list of publications that exist only in bound files in the libraries of our communities." Ungaro said newspapers must remember their role: "We are in the information business ? not the entertainment business. And we cannot and should not try to compete with 'news as entertainment,' which is what most TV news has become. "We are most successful when we accurately and thoroughly hold up a mirror to the community or communities we serve and thus become indispensable to our readers and advertisers. No other media ? radio, TV, database publishing, the electronic superhighway ? can do as well as we can. "We need to emphasize what we do best ? report, write, edit and present a coherent report of the previous day's activities in the context of what is significant and interesting to our readers. We can't outdo talk-show radio or be more entertaining that a TV drama or comedy," he said. ?( Joseph Ungaro) [Photo]