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Newspapers, foundering in unproductive habits, should change

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[first published at Scholars and Rogues 5.19.2016]

One morning a few weeks ago, I sat at the end of the counter in my favorite diner, Robbins Nest. Lisa brought tea, Jessica asked, “The usual?” and owner Crystal badgered chef Anthony (as usual).

CATEGORY: JournalismI set up my iPad mini to read. I noticed, however, the house copy of the metro daily from the big city two hours north. I picked it up and leafed through the 10-page front section. You know, the section with meaningful news for someone who lives two hours away.

I looked at story after story, page after page. I saw the metro had 11 — that’s 11 — stories from The New York Times in those 10 pages. That’s not unusual: Newspapers subscribe to wire services. Such services act as consortiums to provide newspapers with material they could not afford to report, write, and edit on their own. My own paper subscribed to The Times’ wire service back in the day. So seeing 11 Times stories in the local metro daily wasn’t a surprise.

But I had read each of those Times stories 12 hours before on my little iPad mini — because I’m one of The Times’ million-plus digital-only subscribers.

How does this metro daily — and others — fare financially if it prints stories many of its readers may have read online the day before?

According to the metro daily’s chapter of the Newspaper Guild, not so well, although management continues to put a positive spin on it. Said one newspaper executive, according to the Guild, “Our big goal is unchanged: It’s to keep the print newspaper viable for as long as possible, buying us time to develop our digital audience.”

Strike one: The progress to the goal for digital subscribers is miniscule, notes the Guild.

Strike two: Running stories from wire services some readers — perhaps an increasingly many readers — have seen hours before the print paper ever hits the streets is a slow march to obscurity.

Strike three: This local metro daily has become an example of habit-driven decline — “Once a great animal but unable to adapt” announces the caption under a picture of a dinosaur illustrating a column by media analyst and critic Frederic Filloux.

Readers’ habits have evolved; newspapers’ habits not so much. The audience of choice for newspapers (hell, for any medium), the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, sees the news long before a print paper ever serves it up.

Writes Filloux:

Looking back over the last ten or so years, it turns out that many of us share the same feeling of powerlessness and frustration. It is not exactly a relief to see how, on both sides of the Atlantic, the transition to digital appears so painfully difficult for so many news media.

I have long considered that the sector’s financial situation, stemming from audience losses and advertising depletion, was the main culprit. I no longer think this is the case. The main cause of legacy media failure to make a successful digital transition lies in its inability to overhaul its ancestral culture. The phenomenon cascades from top management down to every layer in the company, and the fossilization makes little distinction between generations. [emphasis added]

America’s dailies had almost 56,000 full-time newspaper employees — mostly reporters and editors — in pre-recession 2006. Today, barely more than 30,000 toil under the stress of the expectation to produce what twice as many once did.

I’ve written about this numerous times since 2007 here at S&R. Layoff after layoff, newspaper corporate executives would sing the same tune in the same corporate language.

We’re redeploying our newsroom resources to better serve our readers.

We’re shifting our news focus from print to digital to better serve our readers.

We’re redefining what a journalist is to better serve our readers.

Don’t worry: The quality of our journalism will be unaffected by our newsroom restructuring …

… all to better serve our readers.

As Filloux writes, “[S]cores of media companies have been taking initiatives out of fear and desperation, often clinging to the day’s most hyped feature.” That fear and desperation have trumped foresight — and Filloux lists the many opportunities legacy media stumbled on, leading to ever more fractured relationships with readers. Missed were apps, aggregators, advertising technologies, recommendation engines, audience building, social platform, and a swift shift to mobile.

Then again, it’s hard to expect legacy media executives who believed getting rid of nearly half the workforce that creates its principal product to be bright enough to capitalize on those opportunities.

So I sit here in Robbins Nest, chowing down on my two scrambled and modest home fries. I neatly fold the house copy of the metro daily and place it back on the counter.

Surely someone else will pick it up.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 15, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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