Sunday, December 13, 2009

How newspapers blew it

I read this piece in the NY Times this morning and wanted to offer my response, from the perspective of a journalist who entered the industry just as it was collapsing:

I'm tired of hearing poor daily newspaper writers and editors bemoan their lost jobs. They have no idea how good they had it. For years, they worked within bloated newsrooms, with layer upon layer of bureaucracy protecting them. When I graduated from college with a degree in English and journalism in 2002, I would have liked a job at the big daily in Connecticut, the Hartford Courant. Want to know how many of the Class of 2002 landed jobs that year? ZERO. Want to know why? Because that paper had lived off the fat of huge profit margins for too long. It had built up its newsroom staff to excessive levels. Since that time, the Courant's reporting staff has been slashed repeatedly, all while its ex-staffers cry over the death of an institution.

I get really bitter when I hear people who've had illustrious reporting careers crying over the death of newspapers. At least you got to enjoy the ride! I once spoke to a man whose wife was a reporter at the Washington Post during the 1970s. He said that they would send two or three reporters out on one assignment, have all three report and write the story and then pick the best version. Sounds like a great way to get the best product. Also sounds like a great way to waste money. I heard this story as I worked at a small, family-owned afternoon daily in an old mill town in Northeastern Connecticut. I reported on a failed local effort to get a so-called living wage ordinance approved in town. I had to earnestly record quotes on this story while I slowly realized "those people" who weren't make a "living wage" included me and my meager salary. But I still went to work every day... and learned incredible lessons about reporting and about life in general.

At the same time, daily newspapers were ignoring a very basic lesson that they could have picked up in an introductory MBA class. Somehow daily newspapers forgot that they were businesses. And that absent-mindedness landed them where they are today.

I remember when I told the publisher of said afternoon daily that I was leaving to take a job at a regional business journal. He looked at me incredulously and said, "But we thought you'd go to the Hartford Courant." I remember looking back and saying, "Well, I don't think they're hiring." The truth was I was never going to get a job at the Hartford Courant. There were no jobs to be had. I can't count the number of times I cranked out a page one news story and saw the same story in the Courant authored by not one, not two, but three reporters. In other words the Courant would pay three inflated salaries to do the same work that I did as a recent college grad not making a living wage.

No wonder daily newspapers are in trouble today. They squandered their inheritance. They earned the trust of the public. They became a part of people's lives and were vital to the community. And then they got drunk on power and profit margins. While their very own celebrated columnists watched and wrote about it (earning $80,000 a week to write 650 words), the Internet came and completely turned their business upside down. They saw it coming, but these huge newspaper machines couldn't get out of their own way to make the changes necessary to survive (like sending only one reporter to cover a basic news story...).

Now, I continue to work in business journals, and I have had fabulous opportunities to advance. It's not easy and we have to work really hard with few resources. But that's part of our culture. Meanwhile, I look over at our daily newspaper competition and marvel at their flailing.

I recently interviewed a woman for a job opening at my paper. She's working at a medium-sized daily newspaper and has about a year of experience. She's making $45,000 a year to cover town council meetings. No wonder daily newspapers are losing money...

All this navel gazing in the newspaper industry has got to stop. Guess what, the rules have changed. We don't know where we going. It's the Gutenberg Era and what newspapers look like 10, 20 years from now will be unrecognizable today. All we can do is continue to provide compelling information. The answer isn't "synergy" and it's not selling content. It's digging up compelling news and delivering it to people.

As for this issue of online news and people not being willing to pay for it -- the answer is simple. If you provide people something of value, they will pay for it. If what you provide is useless, people won't pay for it. Maybe people won't pay for news online because the news online sucks. It's time for change, editors. It's time for risks. Some will succeed and some will fail. But it will be fun and interesting as we figure it out.

In the end, I'm actually grateful that I entered the journalism profession when I did. I didn't get to enjoy the heydays of five reporters on a single ribbon-cutting story. But I do get to be part of the team that rebuilds this industry.


  1. And to add insult to injury... I just went to post a link to this blog post in the comment section of the NY Times piece that prompted this rant and guess what? There was no comments section on this article... Part of some silly system they have at Unbelievable.

  2. to me you can apply what you have said to the way people run there lives, and the way companies run there business. Change happens.Adapt or fade away.....

  3. it IS the Gutenberg era.. very exciting and scary all at once. i love this blog but the design sucks. seriously, where did these colors come from?

  4. Oh snap, Jonathan! I'll look into a new color scheme. Jeez!