Big news: Newspapers, long mourned, aren’t really dead

By Tom Baxter

There has recently been a man-bites-dog story about a newspaper, although it has received scant attention in the newspapers, which cover nothing so poorly as they cover themselves.

Last year the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that it was cutting back to three print editions a week and would focus henceforth on “new and innovative ways” to cover the news online. That was a dog-bites-man story. The idea of cutting back circulation days has been kicked around in newspaper circles for several years, and Detroit and a few smaller papers have already done it. It’s in line with a larger narrative about the demise of newspapers at the hands of the internet.

Last month, however, the Times-Pic announced a change in strategy. This summer it will begin publication of a tabloid edition, to be called TPStreet, which it will sell for 75 cents a copy on the three weekdays — Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays — when it isn’t printing the old paper.

This development has a lot to do with the threat posed by an increasingly aggressive competitor, the Baton Rouge Advocate.  It’s also evidence that some big holes are beginning to show in the larger, internet-killed-the-newspaper narrative.

It has become conventional wisdom that newspapers took a fateful dive when news stories began to appear on the web and readers were able to acquire a wide variety of stories and columns which they formerly had to pay for in print.

The first flaw in that idea is that it really wasn’t the wider accessibility of editorial content that affected the bottom line of newspapers so dramatically, as much as the rise of Craigslist and a legion of similar sites which effectively knocked the legs out from under the classified advertising on which the newspapers relied. That was followed by the crisis in retail advertising, as department stores and other local stores began to be crowded out, first by big-box national chains and then by the emergence of Amazon and its internet cousins.

The second flaw in the internet-killed-the-newspapers narrative is the assumption it conveys that everything was hunky-dory before people began buying desktops. In reality, all the negative factors that have been pushed aside in the conventional narrative — the steadily increasing costs of producing a paper on one side of a big metro area and making money by throwing it on a doorstep 30 or 40 miles away, the changing lifestyle patterns of readers and the grinding competition with television and radio — were present long before the internet came along.

Back in the early ’80s,  publishers and editors used to gather at their association confabs and wring their hands in worry over what they perceived as the general decline of literacy, and promote “newspaper in the classroom” programs as an antidote to this dangerous trend.  They seriously thought their problem was that people didn’t read as much anymore, or as well. If they could have known back then that something called “texting” would one day become common, they would have clapped their hands in delight and relief.

That gets to a third and very important flaw in that narrative we’ve heard so often: the internet, so often characterized as an unanticipated calamity for newspapers, was every bit as much a missed opportunity.

Today it may sound like a steampunk fantasy, but if some publisher 25 years ago had come up with a device dedicated to delivering the news electronically and given it away to readers in exchange for a long-term subscription, the industry might have taken a radically different and more profitable direction. Such a device would have looked more like the old Trash 80 (still one of the finest devices ever produced) than an iPad or a Kindle, but it would have been entirely feasible. Newspapers were producing their content and gathering wire feeds from around the world via computer for years before it dawned on anyone that the same technology could be used to undercut them.

The history of newspapers online has been a series of reiterations of that original lost chance. With the horse out of the barn, newspapers rushed to create their own websites lest others pirate their content and publish it elsewhere online. Still a dollar short, they made a desultory series of attempts to charge for the content they had already given away, having failed to grasp, as Steve Jobs did, that the money was in controlling the means of delivery.

At first they tried to make their websites look like the other digital sites that threatened them, but gradually they gravitated toward “digital editions,” like the one the AJC currently produces, which look like facsimiles of the very product that was supposedly failing. MyAJC.com, which ends its trial period and becomes a full-fledged product this week, represents a new stage, in which the digital product is much more closely tied together with the print product both in terms of content and the subscription model. In effect, it represents an admission that the internet isn’t going away, but neither is print.

A lot of smart money is hip to this already. If newspapers were really doomed, Warren Buffett wouldn’t have bought 28 of them. The Koch brothers’ attempt to buy the Tribune Company has been treated primarily as a political story,  and surely there’s an element of that in it. But the brothers have an eye for the bottom line, and another motivation for them surely is the expectation that there’s still money to be made in this business.

Although a number of big-city papers are still in decline, the New York Times increased its circulation 18 percent and the Wall Street Journal 12 percent over the past year. Many smaller markets were affected by the crisis in advertising, but they have never suffered the upheavals that affected larger markets more affected by urban sprawl; they’ve already made their accommodation with the internet and are moving on.

Print is still affected by the costs of gas, ink and news print, and a younger generation has grown up without the sentimental attachment their elders have for holding a newspaper in their hands with a cup of coffee on a lazy Sunday morning. But the digital world is prone to its own insecurities. Another story that didn’t get nearly enough attention was Microsoft’s recent announcement that it no longer will support Windows XP — the last really stable version of that operating system — after April of next year. Desktops, which supposedly toppled newspapers, are themselves looking increasingly like an endangered species.

There’s no question that a painful transformation has occurred. You’re not reading this on paper, for one thing.  But the demise of print has been greatly exaggerated, and the reasons commonly offered for newspapers’ problems have been faulty and self-serving.

If the captains of this industry had been more far-sighted, many dedicated people would have been spared a lot of real suffering, and the public would have been better served. But then a lot of us wouldn’t have gotten buyouts, either. There’s no use shedding any tears about the death of newspapers, because as the birth of TPStreet attests, they’re not really dead.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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6 comments
SpaceyG
SpaceyG

Are you saying I'll never get Cox family-rich off of journalism? Sad news indeed. If only I'd have been able to pass that early-80's programming class...

SpaceyG
SpaceyG

Are you saying I'll never get Cox family-rich off of journalism? Sad news indeed. If only I'd have been able to pass that early-80's programming class...

DH-ATL
DH-ATL

Great analysis-- the need for news or good (non-partisan) journalism has not gone away-- In fact we need it more than ever--

The only disagreement I have is that WindowsXP thing-- really? XP is ancient and subsequent versions of Windows have been better-- Windows 7 is extremely stable as is 8, though some object to the wholesale redesign of its interface-- In any case, tablets DO appear to be the future of news delivery, at least for now--

DH-ATL
DH-ATL

Great analysis-- the need for news or good (non-partisan) journalism has not gone away-- In fact we need it more than ever-- The only disagreement I have is that WindowsXP thing-- really? XP is ancient and subsequent versions of Windows have been better-- Windows 7 is extremely stable as is 8, though some object to the wholesale redesign of its interface-- In any case, tablets DO appear to be the future of news delivery, at least for now--

MikeKing1
MikeKing1

Tom, this is a very insightful analysis. I couldn't agree more with your conclusion that we probably blew the whole thing back in the late 80s at the advent of digital transmission of our stories, even if it was only from a desktop to the printing press. That was such a momentous change for the business and our outlook on it was incredibly short-sighted, no doubt influence by the high cost of beginning that new process at a time when owners and publishers were rolling in money. I remember the late Barry Bingham Jr convening the Louisville Courier-Journal staff in the mid 80s to declare that he saw a day coming when print would be in decline ("and none too soon," he said, "because it is costly and dirty and it uses chemicals that pollute and trashes up our streets..." always the environmentalist). So he hired three or four people to work on a startup project called Data Courier, that originally was designed to produce agate from business and sport pages and a little bit of narrative. It was incedibly clunky for 1986, but it was an investment and he was proud of it.. (To be fair, those of us on the news staff saw the whole thing as something of a pipe dream for our always interesting young publisher.) of course when Gannett purchased the newspapers from his family the following year the first thing it did was shut down Data Courier (followed by The Louisville Times). Profits skyrocketed. Stockholders were happy and our focus switched to better color presses, shorter stories and all the other Gannett lollipops tossed to readers. And that's where most newspapers hung out until it was too late and we all started to scramble to put up sites that concentrated most of our efforts on the sizzle and avoided the steak. I'm glad that some publishers never abandoned what works and others have now returned to our strengths, but it will only work IF -- and this is a big if -- they understand that the business model they now have will not support the outrageous profits that they came to think of as an entitlement. (If the Republicans can use that work whenever they feel like it, so By Gawd, can I.)

MikeKing1
MikeKing1

Tom, this is a very insightful analysis. I couldn't agree more with your conclusion that we probably blew the whole thing back in the late 80s at the advent of digital transmission of our stories, even if it was only from a desktop to the printing press. That was such a momentous change for the business and our outlook on it was incredibly short-sighted, no doubt influence by the high cost of beginning that new process at a time when owners and publishers were rolling in money. I remember the late Barry Bingham Jr convening the Louisville Courier-Journal staff in the mid 80s to declare that he saw a day coming when print would be in decline ("and none too soon," he said, "because it is costly and dirty and it uses chemicals that pollute and trashes up our streets..." always the environmentalist). So he hired three or four people to work on a startup project called Data Courier, that originally was designed to produce agate from business and sport pages and a little bit of narrative. It was incedibly clunky for 1986, but it was an investment and he was proud of it.. (To be fair, those of us on the news staff saw the whole thing as something of a pipe dream for our always interesting young publisher.) of course when Gannett purchased the newspapers from his family the following year the first thing it did was shut down Data Courier (followed by The Louisville Times). Profits skyrocketed. Stockholders were happy and our focus switched to better color presses, shorter stories and all the other Gannett lollipops tossed to readers. And that's where most newspapers hung out until it was too late and we all started to scramble to put up sites that concentrated most of our efforts on the sizzle and avoided the steak. I'm glad that some publishers never abandoned what works and others have now returned to our strengths, but it will only work IF -- and this is a big if -- they understand that the business model they now have will not support the outrageous profits that they came to think of as an entitlement. (If the Republicans can use that work whenever they feel like it, so By Gawd, can I.)