To my way of thinking, the Arkansas Gazette died in 1991 at age 172. Wehco Media, the company that published the Arkansas Democrat, bought the Gazette’s assets — including the name — but did not buy the company. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s celebration last week of the Gazette’s 200th anniversary, then, would have rankled me more had I not been so eager to share any cause for celebration in the daily newspaper industry.
Just days earlier, in fact, I had reacted with cautious optimism to the news that The Advocate, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper based in Baton Rouge, had purchased New Orleans’ venerable Times-Picayune. I was optimistic because The Advocate promised to restore seven-day-a-week print editions to the Big Easy. (The Times-Picayune has been printing just three days a week since 2012.) Then I heard that the entire Times-Picayune staff — 161 people, including 65 journalists — had been given 60 days’ notice, although an unspecified number are likely to be hired by the new owners.
This is an Opinion
Just another day in the newspaper business, which appears to be the first industry to starve to death at a time when consumer demand for its product has never been greater. Think about it. You want the latest news, and you want it how and when you want it. And whether you realize it or not, most news reporting is still being done by employees of traditional newspapers. Even the biggest news you see on TV or hear on the radio is often reported first by newspapers — even if the news first appears on their websites.
And while it may seem like we are being inundated with more news than ever before, the truth is we’re merely seeing news from far-flung sources that weren’t readily available in the pre-internet age. (We’re also seeing a lot of opinion that looks like news as well as genuine fake news — outright lies designed to deceive — that can also seem convincing.) Employment in newsrooms of all kinds — newspaper, television, radio, digital — declined by 23% between 2010 and 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, from 114,000 to 88,000.
But it’s really worse than that sounds: While the number of newsroom jobs declined by about 26,000, newspaper newsrooms lost some 32,000 jobs — a 45% loss in just seven years. The difference was made up by growth in the still-small number of digital newsroom employees (from 7,000 to 13,000).
Newspapers are in a death spiral: More people are getting their news online, which would be fine — better than fine, since it does not have to be printed or delivered — if online advertising had similar value to print advertising. But it doesn’t, not even close. The glut of online advertising depresses the value so that it is literally pennies on the dollar compared with print advertising, and even print ads become less valuable as the subscriber base shrinks. But there’s no relief from the cost of printing and sending a carrier down every street to deliver fewer and fewer papers. And while journalists have never been expensive — believe me — we do not work for free.
Walter Hussman, owner of the Democrat-Gazette, is one of the sharpest newspaper operators in the country. He beat Gannett in a legendary newspaper war, and he was smarter than almost anyone else about the folly of giving away valuable, costly news for free. I don’t know if his gamble on iPad subscriptions will pay off, but I wouldn’t bet against him.
There are definitely advantages to online news. It is searchable and shareable and always in your pocket. But there are also underappreciated advantages to ink-on-paper news:
► You can be sure you saw every story that might interest you. On the infinite web, you just never know.
► You like print ads. Print advertising is often beautiful, and it never irritates you. You don’t have to wait for a print ad to end — or for the two most beloved words on the internet: “skip ad.” It never jumps up in the middle of what you were reading, nor does it start talking at you. If the product interests you, you can linger over the ad and absorb the details — even the fine print. If the product doesn’t interest you, you just turn the page.
Business journals were the stepchildren of the local newspaper industry when I stumbled into this line of work in the early 1990s. With weekly production cycles and interview subjects who were unreachable after 5 p.m. anyway, it was a good fit for a working mother.
I had no idea that the internet would upend the news world order. It was nothing but pure luck that I ended up in the most stable niche, thanks to the loyal support of the business audience.
And I do mean thanks.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.