Essay: Hey, Publishers: Stop fooling us, and yourselves

For an industry built on a foundation of truth-telling, the newspaper business sure has trouble telling the truth about itself.

Last month at the World Newspaper Congress in Turin, Italy, the chief spokesperson for U.S.-based dailies, Newspaper Association of America President Caroline Little, gave publishers, editors and educators from around the world a presentation on “the current state of newspaper media in the United States.”

Little’s PowerPoint show was a work of art. With her palette of selective statistics, context-less trend statements and stock photos of smiling, young news consumers, she painted an uplifting masterpiece worthy of the Italian master Botticelli. His cherubic angels were Little’s news-hungry Millennials; his dancing nymphs were her nimble publishers.

[caption id="attachment_259155" align="alignleft" width="250"]David Boardman, Dean, Temple University School of Media and Communication David Boardman, Dean, Temple University School of Media and Communication[/caption] If I hadn’t known better – knowledge gained through years as the editor of The Seattle Times and in my current role as the president of the American Society of News Editors – I’d have thought U.S. papers were thriving. I might have walked out of the auditorium, Skyped my financial advisor and said, “Forget waiting on that Uber IPO; put my money in Lee Newspapers stock.”

Luckily for my family and my financial future, I know spin when I see it. The NAA and the companies it represents are spinning far too often these days.

Here’s what Little and her PowerPoint said – and what she didn’t say:

What she said: “Total revenue for the multiplatform U.S. newspaper media business amounted to $37.59 billion in 2013.” What she didn’t say: It was a billion dollars more than that in 2012, $2 billion more in 2011, and $12 billion more in 2006. In other words, it’s dropped by a third in seven years and continues to fall with no end in sight.

What she said: “The printed newspaper continues to reach more than half of the U.S. adult population.” What she didn’t say: But the percentage of Americans who routinely read a printed paper daily continues its dramatic decline, and is somewhere down around 25 percent.  “Reaching” in Little’s reference can mean those people read one issue in the past week; it doesn’t mean they are regular daily readers of the printed paper.

What she said: “This is not an audience that will be abandoning newspapers anytime soon.” What she didn’t say: But they may soon be reading pass-around copies in the nursing home. I recently learned from internal sources that for one major newspaper, the average age of its daily readers moved from 55 to 60 in just 18 months. What will it be by 2020?

To her credit, Little did address the need for newspapers to find new sources of revenue, especially digital. She pointed out, correctly, that newspaper content is drawing significant readership online. But she portrayed a fiction where papers could invent a new future while holding on tightly to the past.

I was once a member of this flat-earth society. Briefly, I believed, like Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner, that if we restored the papers to their pre-recession levels of quality and size, subscribers would come back. I no longer believe that (and neither, based on the massive layoffs at Kushner’s paper, does he).

There is no doubt that newspapers accelerated this decline with the astounding, quarterly-returns-driven decimation of their products over the past decade. But to pretend that the profound shift from fiber to cyber is anything short of a revolution in news consumption is a disservice to journalism and to the democracy that depends upon it.

We don't need access to newspaper circulation and revenue figures, spun or otherwise, to see the reality. Get on a commuter train, go to a coffee shop, go to an airport, go to any of the places where people used to devour printed newspapers, and see how few are doing that now.

Let’s get real. The seven-day-a-week printed newspaper – particularly in metropolitan areas – is terminally ill. Working to sustain it is not only futile, but ultimately destructive to the very values its champions espouse.

In a recent post titled, “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” New York University professor Clay Shirky, nemesis of the NAA, wrote, “We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print.” I agree – to a point.

Yes, on a Tuesday morning at Starbucks, laptops and tablets outnumber newspapers, dozens to one. But go on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see latte-sippers of all ages perusing that day’s paper, sections spread out over tabletops. For years, newspaper publishers and editors have known through market research that the Sunday paper is a different, more intimate experience for consumers. A good Sunday edition, with a mix of investigative journalism, profiles, cultural reporting, perspective pieces, sports analysis, photography, comics, crosswords and coupons, is an experience many people value and even love. My twentysomething daughters and their friends can't imagine buying a Tuesday paper, but love the Sunday morning paper-and-pajamas party.

And for most papers, the Sunday edition already accounts for more than half of their total revenue. For some, it’s around 60 percent. It’s a proven, effective vehicle for advertisers.

So, I say to publishers: Invest in a superb, in-depth, last-all-week Sunday (or better yet, Saturday) paper, a publication so big and rich and engaging that readers will devour it piece by piece over many days, and pay a good price for that pleasure. Get together with each other and consolidate your printing operations, creating one independent print-and-deliver contractor in each geographic region who can shed the outdated and outsized costs of your legacy operations.

Then turn your attention and your resources where they belong now: Creating meaningful, engaging and sustainable news products for emerging technologies, where most of you are already woefully behind such innovative rivals as Vox and Vice.

Move deliberately to one weekly, “lean back” printed paper and an array of quality, interactive, “lean in” digital products, especially for mobile devices, to which your readers are moving far faster than you are.

(One tidbit Little did reveal in her Italy PowerPoint: Newspaper advertising on mobile platforms, by far the fastest-growing vehicle for news consumption, amounts to less than 1 percent of the industry’s total.)

Use that money you're spending now on newsprint, ink, pressmen, trucks, drivers and gasoline and hire more reporters, photographers, videographers, data journalists, software developers, mobile designers, social-media experts, workflow architects, marketing strategists and digital advertising pros. Recognize, like the big tech companies do, that the most valuable thing your digital readers can give you is their data, not their dollars.

Turn your attention, now so inwardly focused, outward. Build your community connections, especially with minority groups that will soon become the majority.

Don't worry about your remaining loyal print readers. Most will readily pay you whatever you ask for that quality weekly, perhaps even what you charge them for the full week now.

Finally, make this transition in a brave, bold, confident – and candid – way. Go seven days to one in a fell swoop, avoiding the confusion Newhouse has created in its cities with four-days-a-week publication.

Pick a date certain – say, January 1, 2018 – and tell your readers and advertisers unapologetically that that’s where you are headed, why you are headed there, and that you want their help in figuring out how to get there in a way that will serve them and the community best.

They – and the 38,000 journalists still working for American newspapers – deserve the truth. They can handle it. Can you?

David Boardman is Dean of the Temple University School of Media and Communication. He is also president of the American Society of News Editors and chairman of the Poynter Institute’s National Advisory Board. His views are his own and he is not speaking for those organizations.

Caroline Little Response: We need to embrace all media including print


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