Recent years have been challenging for people who work at newspapers and for the people who read them. A deep recession and the digital revolution have whipsawed newspapers, cutting advertising, reducing pages and staff and giving rise to predictions that the daily newspaper is heading for extinction.
The News & Observer has endured the whole range of reductions and transitions, and the turbulence is far from over. On the digital side, the transition is accelerating as reporters and editors scramble to communicate through newsobserver.com, videos, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
All of it can be bewildering for newspaper veterans and longtime readers and feel like the beginning of the end for printed newspapers. That makes it a wonder to come across a 2014 book that declares that the end is not nigh. The book, “Greatly exaggerated,” carries the subtitle: “The myth of the death of newspapers.” Its author, Marc Edge, has been a reporter and editor in Canada for the Vancouver Province and the Calgary Herald, and a professor of journalism in Canada and the U.S..
Edge’s thesis is compressed in his book’s title. He says newspapers have lost circulation and clout, but they are and will remain profitable businesses. Rather than dinosaurs unable to adjust to a changing news climate, Edge says, newspapers have shown remarkable resilience by cutting costs, refocusing coverage, adapting to digital platforms and turning to readers for more revenue.
While a sharp decline in newspaper profits forced a number of companies into bankruptcy, Edge says the financial troubles were caused more by the misadventures and misjudgments of owners and executives than by the weakening of the newspaper business model. In and after bankruptcy, many newspapers continue to generate profits, though reduced from the hefty 20 percent and higher profit margins of 20 years ago.
McClatchy Newspapers, the owner of The News & Observer since 1995, rejected bankruptcy on the grounds that the most responsible course was to pay off its debts. That left the company heavily burdened in a time of sinking revenues and declining assets. It borrowed more than $4 billion to buy the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain in 2006. Soon afterward, newspapers got clobbered by the bursting of the housing bubble and the ensuing financial meltdown. The debt has forced McClatchy to cut staff and expenses at its 29 newspapers and sell assets. But all of McClatchy’s newspapers are profitable even as the company has paid off $3 billion in debt.
When newspapers seemed most endangered, some boosters of the digital revolution cheered their struggles as signaling the dawn of a new era of digital news. A website called Newspaper Death Watch launched in 2007 with the mission of “Chronicling the decline of newspapers and the rebirth of journalism.” Under the headline R.I.P., the site lists “North American metro dailies that have closed since 2007.” The list has 12 papers, some of which had struggled even before the recession, but a daily newspaper has not joined the list since 2009.
Edge writes that the list “stubbornly refused to grow as newspapers hunkered down, cut costs and rode out the recession.” Some advertising disappeared in the recession and didn’t return, but Edge writes that, “enough core advertisers remained to sustain monopoly newspapers, as most local merchants found that print on paper was still the most effective way to reach their customers. ... It turned out that the business model for newspapers wasn’t broken after all, and was instead quite robust, if somewhat arcane.”
That’s not to say newspapers are emerging from the woods. Many are leaner, less essential and less influential. And their extension onto digital platforms can be clunky and irritating, especially for devoted print readers. For instance, The N&O’s decision to take baseball box scores out of the newspaper and publish them only online prompted more than 30 letters to the editor from readers who relish analyzing the game stats in their morning paper.
Edge also argues that the Internet is a supplement to newspapers, not a replacement. Unlike radio, film and TV, the Internet does not deliver new content. It is merely a new way of transmitting existing content. The Internet expands the reach of that content. It does not replace it. Therefore, he says, newspapers can survive if they focus on their strengths – investigations, analysis and commentary.
Anders Gyllenhaal, a former N&O editor and now McClatchy’s vice president for news, said he had never heard of Edge’s book but added, “I love the title.” He said the printed newspaper is getting smaller but is still a part of the future. Cutting print costs, he said, is part of expanding online investment as people increasingly get their news from their phones and computers.
“Now we’re able to follow readers where they’re going,” he said. “It’s challenging, but in a lot of ways it’s never been more interesting.”
It’s still uncertain where newspapers are going, but it’s becoming clearer that they’re not going away. Survival, however, will not be a victory if it requires newspapers to cut too deeply into the reporting resources that make them worthwhile. Fittingly, Edge opens his book with a 1998 quote from the British editor Harold Evans: “The challenge of the American newspaper is not to stay in business. It is to stay in journalism.”
Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at email@example.com, or 919-829-4512.