Reports of newspapers’ death greatly exaggerated

Predictions of the demise of the daily newspaper are based on myths that don’t stand scrutiny, argues David Estok, former editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator. Newspapers are becoming more focused and more efficient but they will survive the current crisis, because what they do still matters. Predictions of the coming demise of the daily newspaper are based…

Predictions of the demise of the daily newspaper are based on myths that don’t stand scrutiny, argues David Estok, former editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator. Newspapers are becoming more focused and more efficient but they will survive the current crisis, because what they do still matters.

Predictions of the coming demise of the daily newspaper are based on myths that don’t stand scrutiny, argues David Estok, former editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator. Newspapers will become more focused and more efficient but they will survive the current crisis, because what they do still matters.

It had the makings of “a perfect storm.”

A dramatic, aggressive downturn in the economy that some said was the worst in 50 years combined with massive technological change to the way in which people receive information. Add to that a growing segmentation, combined with increased specialization and an explosion of new and competing technology.

All this and more made 2009 seem like a time when the Canadian daily newspaper business was changing forever. Budgets were shrinking budgets. There were fewer staff to do evenmore. Newspapers were forced to contend with tremendous economic pressures to control costs and find new ways of operating at a time when there was a massive decline in traditional advertising revenues. Headlines on both sides of the border sounded the death knell for an industry that had thrived for more than 300 years.

– “Who killed the newspaper?” the Economist cover story shouted.
– “Is this the end of the News?” Vanity Fair asked.
– “Final Edition. Twilight of the American Newspaper,” Harpers declared.

The perception was clear — the best days of the newspaper industry in North America were over. Even Editor and Publisher, the journal that records the industry, went under.

But delve behind the headlines and you find a different story — one of an industry undergoing radical and permanent change. But how much of this change is cyclical and how much structural is a question few feel confident to answer with certainty.

What is certain is a number of myths have developed about just exactly what is happening.

Myth: Newspapers are losing readers
Unlike conventional television, the truth of the matter is that when you combine readership of the daily newspaper with readership of the newspaper website, news organizations have more readers than ever. And the Internet has allowed newspapers to expand beyond their traditional geographic boundaries to serve readers globally.

Daily circulation at most newspapers in Canada is flat or up slightly but their websites are growing at a tremendous rate. More than three-quarters of Canadian adults read a daily newspaper — in print or online — each week. Whatever is happening with newspapers, for the most part it is not a crisis of audience.

Then there is the matter of credibility, accuracy and responsiveness.

In the 1940s — decades before the introduction of cable news, all-news channels and the Internet — esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow said “a lie can go around the world, while the truth is getting its pants on.” It is not surprising readers are turning en masse to reliable newspaper brands that have integrity and are known for their accuracy and ability to correct errors of fact. (Ever try to ask Google for a correction or get something taken off the Internet?)

Myth: The regional newspaper is irrelevant
If the Internet has taught newspapers one lesson, it is that local matters. It is expensive to gather high-quality local news, but more and more regional newspapers understand that intensely local coverage is what really matters. It is the news not readily available on other websites and it is often exclusive in nature to that community.

Intensely local news and commentary by news organizations deeply tied to the fabric of their communities will always have audience. In Hamilton, for example, if you want to know what is going on that weekend, you have to read The Spectator. It is that simple.

Myth: Smaller staffs mean diminished coverage
While gathering news is an expensive and labour-intense business, the awful secret is that many news organizations have not been as productive as they should be. This is true more in the United States than in Canada, but the need for newspaper management to bring a sharper focus to news-gathering operations and make better use of resources is one necessary outcome of the recent crisis.

The trick for newspaper managers will be to consider new ways of capturing readers’ interest, making better decisions on what to cover and, by implication, what not to cover, as they move forward. That fact, along with the importance of ensuring newspapers continue to bring young people into the business, are the key issues when it comes to staffing. Counting FTEs (full-time equivalents) may not always equal news-gathering power.

Myth: The Internet is killing newspapers
For the past six months, we ran an experiment at The Hamilton Spectator, where I had been the editor-in-chief. We took all our columnists off the Internet. These columnists are among the Spectator’s best writers. They are intensely local and they have huge followings. Needless to say, the columnists were upset. They rightly said people wondered if they still worked at the paper; they saw their readership decline and they said they worried tips would dry up.

Surprisingly, during this period without the columnists on the net, readership of the website went up.

I asked the columnists to copy me on every e-mail complaint they received, blame their editor for the change and let me have a chance to engage with readers. In the space of six months, I had about 40 e-mails. I asked every reader the same three questions: 1) Are you a subscriber to the hard copy edition of the newspaper? 2) Would you pay a small fee for to read the columnists online? 3) Why don’t you buy the newspaper?

The answers were probably not a surprise.

About 80 per cent said they do not buy the hard copy of the newspaper. (They gave a lot of reasons why.) About 80 per cent said they would be willing to pay a small amount of money to access the website (the devil was really in the details for most of them. Questions like how much, how would we pay, etc.) As to why they didn’t want to buy the paper each day, they gave a lot of answers that included no time, too much paper to recycle, messy, don’t live in the area, can’t e-mail articles to friends and family, etc.

I am not sure the experiment proves much. I’m also not sure it’s a good idea to keep columnists off the newspaper’s website — but I do think the days of simply dumping everything that is in the newspaper on to the website for free are coming to an end.

Myth: It’s free
We all know there is no such thing as “free”, but it is hard to ask for money for something that used to cost nothing.

Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton told industry leaders at a newspaper conference at the end of 2009 that the days of “free” are coming to an end:

“The main and most uncomfortable trust is that this industry is the principal architect of its greatest difficulty today. We are all allowing our journalism – billions of dollars worth of it every year – to leak onto the Internet. We are surrendering our hard-earned rights to the search engines and aggregators and those out-and-out thieves. It is time to pause and recognize this: Free costs too much.”

The Associated Press is working on developing software that will bill third parties when AP content appears online. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. announced it intends to start charging for access to its websites by this summer and the New York Times says it will follow suit in 2011. There are currently several models under consideration about how to charge for online content, including one based on usage (i.e. some access is free but, at a certain volume, you’ll get charged), another based on a flat fee and another that sees news organizations charging the “pipeline” that carries the information. Others argue a “platform shift” – the introduction of new technologies, such as the iTouch or the iPad, will allow for a structural change to the traditional business model. Still others suggest new waves of funding for investigative newsgathering might be possible — everything from grants from foundations and non-profits to government subsidies.

While it is hard to predict the future, I think it is safe to say the newspaper of the future will be smaller, aggressively local, more analytical and less frequent. The industry will see greater outsourcing of non-news and advertising activity, more content sharing between news organizations and greater use of “citizen” journalism. Newsrooms will be more efficient and there will be less duplication and waste.

All this and more will happen because newspapers still matter. They are the best way for a community to talk to itself and play a key role in community revitalization. They are an important component of a free and democratic society. They still give a voice to those who do not have one and they still seek out and report on abuse and corruption.

And all of that still matters.

David Estok is the former editor-in-chief at the Hamilton Spectator. He ran the newsroom for the past three years, during which time the Spectator received 12 National Newspaper nominations, two Michener nominations and dozens of Ontario Newspaper Awards. It  was also named the best media organization in Canada by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.