With a new year ahead of us, everyone wishes 2020 was just a bad dream, and newspapers can find their footing once again to explore new opportunities post-pandemic. As this past year took its toll on advertisers and our subscriber base and economy in general, many newspapers looked at consolidation, reducing print days, cutting pages, reducing staffing levels, and more of the same “economies” we’ve been forced to practice for several years now.
It seems circulation size doesn’t matter anymore. Even larger properties like the Kansas City Star have moved their printing to outside sources to find efficiencies. Numerous medium-sized properties that I’ve written about this past year have contracted to outside printers, and more small publications are outsourcing printing as well.
It seems to boil down to two choices for us all: print or be printed.
Then, we look at some of the exceptions to the rules. One of the first that comes to mind would be the Villages Daily Sun in Florida. This property continues to grow their print product at a breakneck pace. Circulation seems to be on the upswing. They’re in the process of setting up a new production facility, expanding their operation and moving forward like it was 1970 again. What do they know that the rest of us don’t? What are they doing different? I’m not quite sure but one obvious advantage is audience. They seem to have the perfect mix of baby boomers who still see the value of print on paper and advertisers who realize there is a broad reader base that looks to the printed product when they’re shopping around. It’s an enviable place to be in, but sadly not the place the rest of us seem to be heading.
Unfortunately, looking ahead to the new year, I believe most of us will instead continue down the road to economizing.
This past year has been one none of us will soon forget. The advertising base we rely on for majority of our revenue has been challenged to the breaking point. Retail advertisers who have drifted away from print and explored the new world of digital advertising gave us great hopes that we had discovered a sustainable revenue stream, but many of our advertisers have been forced to shut their doors due to the pandemic. Others have reduced hours and those lucky enough to somehow stay open have seen their foot traffic reduced beyond the point anyone could have imagined. This perfect storm left our advertisers with very little logical reason to advertise at all. As this revenue stream dwindled, it left many newspapers with limited alternatives.
There’s no surprise here. I’m not telling any of you anything that you haven’t figured out for yourself. The forecast for 2021 is scary. Many of us will not recover and survive what has happened in 2020 to our industry.
Normally at this point, I roll out some optimistic comment, but the reality of it is maybe not all of us will. I’ve said time and time again that I love print and no part of that has changed. But where our industry is at now is like nothing I’ve experienced in my career and I am truly concerned.
While my predictions for 2021 aren’t everything’s coming up roses, it isn’t totally bleak either.
Digital Opportunities Abound
Readers will always be out there, and the newspaper industry has amassed one of the most professional and powerful reporting machines to attract them. From our small-town newspaper reporters and photographers to newsroom teams at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune—the list goes on, we provide readers with factual and informative content wrapped up with dynamic features and investigative reporting that is hard to find anywhere else. Regardless of how it appears in print or on a computer screen or a smartphone, newspapers provide an unparallel product and service in one package that you simply can’t get anywhere else.
This is the primary strength of our industry. It’s the value people see in our products. Years ago, readers might pick up our papers to shop for goods and services, but much of that has changed; more than ever quality journalism sells.
The internet has chipped away at our advertising dollars for many years now and that only seems to be getting worse. I believe that while digital may not draw in as much revenue as print, we can grow this area of our business and sustain the key individuals in our news gathering areas for years to come.
Industry leaders like Walter Hussman of WEHCO Media are on the forefront, having introduced his iPad experiment, where subscribers are offered a free iPad with access to daily digital editions at his local newspapers in Arkansas.
What About Preprints?
Preprints took a serious hit at most newspapers as a result of COVID-19 and its effect on advertisers. I spoke with several properties who suffered preprint declines of 50 to 70 percent over the holidays.
With the growth of digital in our industry, will advertisers be content inserting into our printed products once a week, on Sunday, or will they expand their own websites and find other avenues to advertise to compensate?
A lot depends on our ability to draw readers to our digital presentations. If we are able to sustain our quality newsrooms and provide superior content to attract readers, there is no good reason why we cannot be the winners on the digital front.
Commercial Printing Grows
Jumping over to operations, this brings us back to my previous statement of “print or be printed.” This will be a key decision at many of our properties in 2021. Those of us who have previously established a strong commercial business at our newspapers or who have seen the light and are growing into this area are at an advantage over those who simply print their own products without outside printing contracts.
At the majority of the newspapers I’ve worked for throughout my career, we’ve expanded into commercial and provided the organization with a revenue stream that can support other areas of the operation and provide a cushion throughout some of the tough times to our core products.
Having outside printing at your facility gives you a leg up on the competition and can make all the difference between being the one who is outsourced or the one who does the printing for others who need to outsource their printing. I see it as the single most reliable revenue stream available to your entire operation.
Having commercial printing offered at your property allows you to continue to grow the entire business. If you somehow can squeak by without it and still print your core products, you probably won’t be adding any new equipment in 2021, but if you can grow your commercial and show a positive cash flow as a result. Chances are your company will be more apt to invest in capital projects and provide the necessary equipment to expand commercial possibilities. It’s a win/win for operations.
Finding the Talent
Despite the fact that most of us continue to downsize our labor force and/or assign multiple responsibilities to individuals to economize, I still continue to find one of the most challenging things in our industry is finding qualified, long-term, dedicated employees.
Many of our mailrooms pay minimum wage or offer low hourly pay, no benefits for part-timers and demand shift hours that are not ideal. It’s difficult finding reliable and qualified individuals at many of our newspapers. We often lose good employees to other job opportunities that offer better pay, benefits or full-time employment. This can frequently leave us short on staff and can result in using more expensive temporary help from an agency. This inexperienced temporary labor normally functions at a slower and less productive speed costing us even more in the long run.
When it comes to skilled production labor, such as a press operator, prepress tech or I.T., things can become even more challenging. Pay doesn’t seem to be as much of a challenge, but experience and retention can be. As newspapers downsize or go under altogether, one would think that the market would be overflowing with qualified production personnel looking for a job. The problem I’ve seen with this is so many qualified production professionals have had their fill of layoffs, downsizing, buyouts, transfers, and the constant financial challenges of our industry that they’ve simply decided to move to other industries. I’ve tried to hire many of these individuals back just to hear they’re not interested.
I believe not only will this trend continue into 2021, but it will become worse as time goes on. When was the last time you heard a 20-year-old press applicant say they wanted to do this for the rest of their career? We used to provide a predictable opportunity for growth, expansion and a wonderful career for the right individuals. Operators wanted to learn about printing and become the best at what they do so they could look forward to a long and rewarding career. Somewhere along the line this all changed and now it seems working at a newspaper simply isn’t as enticing as it used to be.
We Will Continue to “Economize”
Early in my career, a wise publisher told me, “Jerry, we will never cut our way to prosperity.” I seriously wonder if that same publisher could support that theory in our current newspaper economy.
Call it what you will—managing expenses, cost reductions, economizing, cost cuts, etc. In the upcoming year, we will continue to do what we have had to do over the past decade and need to continue to do in order to survive. We will eliminate marginal publications, tighten up news holes until it hurts, reduce paging, cut circulation draws, and downsize staffing.
But There is Still Hope
In this feature I have delivered quite a bit of gloom and doom, and it hasn’t been my usual upbeat writing, but it is our reality. I simply don’t want to end on this note. To do so would be an injustice to an industry I love and will continue to support to the end (which I do believe isn’t going to be for quite awhile).
I believe there is opportunity as we move into 2021. The economy will bounce back, the pandemic will wane and confidence in our will to succeed will triumph. Based on the strength of our news organizations, we will be in an excellent position to capitalize on this renewed growth, and if we play our cards right, we can actually have a strong rebound in 2021.
Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.