Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The trouble with the newspaper bidness

Banjo and blogH cover the Chronic's latest woes: more staff cutbacks coming.

I posted previously about some of my newspaper experience; for the sake of full disclosure, I worked for a handful of Hearst's Texas newspapers, on the ad side, between 1981 and 1992.

The profit margin of an urban daily like the Chronicle probably averages something around 20-25%. It might have dropped into the teens lately. The general state of affairs in the newspaper industry -- going back twenty-five years to my time -- is that as circulation and subsequently advertising continually erode, expenses have to be reduced in order to sustain that margin. See, most newspapers don't cut staff to stay in business; they cut staff to maintain the highest profits for any business you can think of. Smaller "community" newspapers run higher margins; the Plainview Daily Herald ran 30% in 1987 and Hearst budgeted 33% in 1988. I know this because I prepared the corporate budgets both years. When the Beaumont Enterprise was sold to Hearst in 1984, the publisher at the time -- who was also the president of Jefferson-Pilot Publications, the seller -- bragged to the Hearst guys that he was running that newspaper at a 40% profit margin. Their response: "You're not paying your people enough."

"A position-elimination program" is the only way left to Jack Sweeney and his brethren at newspapers large and small, all across the nation, to preserve their bonuses and ultimately their own jobs. Just as it was a generation ago, they're all hoping to make it to their own cushy retirements before the really bad shit hits the fan.

Every now and then I get the distinct impression that the printed newspaper as we have all known it will be read only in a museum by the next generation. See, I grew up reading the funnies with my dad, sitting on his lap. When I was a teenager he would announce, as I ambled into the kitchen in the morning: "the Astros won last night". That's how I became a newspaper reader, not a newspaper employee. And that just doesn't happen any more. Kids get what little news they care about any place except from the newspaper. They're too busy texting to get ink on their fingers.

I have absolutely no idea who's going to pay to gather the news in the future. Those profit margins provided the hundreds of staffers to work city hall, the courthouse, the football games and so on. Newspapers have been paying that freight -- to go out and get the news and then get it to us -- for well over a hundred years. But they don't want to do it any more. Costs too much.

And that's where the breakdown will be -- make that, 'is'. The one between the truth and the spin. If the business model doesn't make it worthwhile to gather news, and everybody just prints or posts the press release, and something like net neutrality stifles the blogosphere ...

We can all whine about bias and lack of coverage and cutbacks, but when the newspaper business quits (more likely than going under), there's precious little in terms of infrastructure in the news business to fill the void. TV and radio haven't been doing that job for years (decades, in some cases).

Maybe the corporate media is lazy and too heavily influenced by its profit motive and its ultra-Republican managers, but it's the only thing most of us bloggers -- and citizens -- have. We kinda need them to hang in there.

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