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What’s Really Behind the Plight of Newspapers?

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Newspapers’ fortunes and those of the communities in which they are located long have run parallel to one another as they have to that of the country’s vicissitudes, both economic and visceral.

That history has been altered over the past 15 years during which newspapers began, to borrow melodramatically from author Edward Raymer, a descent into darkness. Industrywide revenues have been more than halved since 2006. Advertising has been particularly impacted.

Our detractors long have been legion but seem to have multiplied in equal proportion to our financial suffering. Everyone’s a critic when you lose your mojo. Invariably, editors hear about the heyday of the newsrooms they now lead. People recall eras when a given paper’s greatness was ostensibly unquestioned. Now, longtime editors are issuing the same laments while watching once mighty titans of the industry wither. “That was a great paper once…” Some of those papers are gone altogether. Others are sure to follow.

A plague of the moment is that everyone seems to know everything, including all the reasons newspapers have stumbled into this state. The loudest refrain is they’re too damn liberal. Other armchair experts trot out banalities. Newspapers are the buggy-whip makers in the era of combustible engines. They didn’t adjust to the internet. Still others hearken to a bygone heyday when all the editors were brilliant, and every reporter was the second coming of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The local paper crumbled to pieces when this editor or that one walked out the door. Now look at it.

Few people seem interested in facts at a time when social media gives everyone a voice no matter how shrill or disconnected from functioning intellect. But those antediluvian enough to think facts matter might consider these:

Print circulation long has been in freefall but not digital audience. Total weekday circulation for all U.S. newspapers slipped to 28.6 million in 2018 from a peak of 63.3 million in 1984. Recent figures are unavailable, but in 2015, newspapers’ online audience reached a record 173 million, according to data cited by the Newspaper Association of America, the industry’s largest trade group, now known as the News Media Alliance.

These statistics indicate newspapers are drawing more, not fewer, people to their work, even with newsroom employment cut by half since 2009.

Online readership for newspapers has not translated into profitability. Advertising revenues industrywide tumbled from nearly $50 billion in 2005 to $14.3 billion in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Print advertising was decimated, plunging from $47.4 billion to roughly $12.5 billion over the same period.

While digital audiences grew, digital advertising did not keep pace, inching past $4 billion by 2018 from $2 billion in 2005. That same year, Google nearly doubled its total revenues to $6.1 billion. Another player in the digital ad market, Facebook, was in its infancy. Today, those two combined bring in more than $200 billion annually. They gobble up 77 percent of the local digital ad market compared to 58 percent nationally, according to Borrell Associates and eMarketer. The effect of this is suffocating for local news organizations. Thousands of them are scrambling for scraps. There is not enough for all to survive.

Terry Kroeger, the former CEO of BH Media, my former employer, told the Wall Street Journal in 2019: “You can’t help but admire Google’s business model. They have close to zero content-creation cost but are able to turn around and sell the lion’s share of the advertising.”

HD Media, my current employer, has filed an antitrust claim against Google and Facebook. Publishers of 125 newspapers in 11 states announced on April 20 that they also had sued or planned to do so. The Daily Mail, the London paper that purchased the domain name of the former Charleston Daily Mail, filed a claim the following day.

These are what another author, Timothy Egan, would call the worst hard times for our industry. Nonetheless, we are confident our best days are ahead. Like our state and her people, we are strong, proud, and resilient. We are steeled by adversity rather than cowed by it.

So, stand with us. Give us hell when we deserve it. Hold us accountable, and demand that we hold people in public office accountable. It’s still our job, and we believe in it. Insist and expect that we vigilantly fill the role of public watchdogs in our communities, that we accurately present a sense of the place we all call home. But also support us and newspapers and journalists across the state and across America.

Just as we need people to clean and police our streets, we need journalists to diligently cover our cities and state, to show us the rights and wrongs not of Washington, but of our hometowns and West Virginia. Who will do it if journalists do not? And if they do not, what becomes of this place?

It isn’t just the future of this newspaper and others that’s at stake. It’s the future of our towns, our state and our country.

Lee Wolverton is vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media.

Comments

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Gordon Borrell

Thank you, Lee, for being the first to say newspapers' best days are ahead of them. Next, the industry needs to be populated with those who fervently believe so.

Tuesday, June 22
Doris Booth

Excellent article. Thank you. I might add that years ago we newspapers had a rule. No page should be composed of more than one-third advertising. Today, Google and streaming TV bombard us with ads. It is easy to click away from ads in a digital environment while print ads surrounds by relevant information leave a lasting impression. As newspapers turn to digital models, perhaps they could use the old one-third rule of advertising load while offering up more relevant news for readers. Newspapers (with smarter dgtal models) may have an opportunity to prosper by realizing that people are fed up with the Google ad load and are hungry for meaningful content. Netflix is a great example where content wins over ad load. Again, bravo Lee for your thoughtful insights. I am pleased to see newspapers taking after the tech giants.

Tuesday, June 22
markinconcord

Newspapers get too little from digital subscriptions and advertisement. They allowed Google and Facebook to set the rates too low and now there is no going back. The other big issue is how difficult it is to sign up for a digital subscriptions and lack of support for older readers who are not as computer savvy.

Tuesday, June 22
Philip S Moore

It is my favorite hobby horse to remind those who consider newspapers, the classic paper-on-ink version, moribund that this claim has been current since the invention of broadcast radio, a century ago. Yes, as Mr. Wolverton observes, "industry-wide revenues have been more than halved since 2006. Advertising has been particularly impacted."

This reflects not evidence of inevitable doom but the convergence of the long-overdue economic correction in earnings, mostly classified earnings, which caused line advertising earnings to soar during the 1990s and fall back in next decade, as well as galloping greed and stupidity at the very top of news organizations, which fueled a reckless rise in subscription prices, concurrent with a spending spree online and a collapse in overall content. It is this, and a 33-percent reduction in nameplates, which has fueled the collapse in weekday circulation, to 28.6 million in 2018 from a peak of 63.3 million in 1984.

While it is also true that, as Mr. Wolverton notes, that "advertising revenues industry-wide tumbled from nearly $50 billion in 2005 to $14.3 billion in 2018, with print advertising, plunging from $47.4 billion to roughly $12.5 billion over the same period. What is frequently overlooked is the simple fact that the fixed production/composition costs of going to press declined, from 1970 to 1990, by three quarters, and the adjusted for inflation daily advertising revenue of newspapers remains higher than it was in 1960, during the supposed heyday of the printed newspaper.

The simple fact is, as Mr. Wolverton suggests, the problem with newspapers in not technology but management. As long as publishers think their newspapers are doomed, they will be doomed. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

but in ourselves."

Tuesday, June 22