Why We Should Worry about a Shrinking Times-Dispatch

The Times-Dispatch building in downtown Richmond.
The Times-Dispatch building in downtown Richmond. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has announced the consolidation of its print news pages and the layoff of another 33 employers, including 13 in the newsroom. The downsizing, which was part of a broader NH Media Group restructuring, came in response to the continuing shift of readers and advertisers to digital media.

“While more readers than ever turn to our digital products, our digital revenue is not growing fast enough yet to offset print revenue losses from both advertising and circulation,” wrote Terry J. Kroeger, CEO of BH Media. Customers are being hurt by the growth in online retailing, he said.

In “resetting” the legacy side of the enterprise, the Times-Dispatch is growing its online audience and developing new revenue segments such as premium magazines, e-commerce, paid events, sponsored content, and archive products and services, said Publisher Thomas Silvestri.

Bacon’s bottom line: The newspaper industry continues its slow-motion death spiral. I pray that I’m wrong, but I don’t see anything that can reverse it. Even if the Times-Dispatch grows its online readership, the transition from paper to print entails a shift from a print advertising revenue model to an online revenue model. Because the T-D enjoys a near-monopoly status in the Richmond regional print market — the tabloid Style Weekly and Richmond magazine provide the only serious competition for print dollars — print ads are highly profitable. But in the online arena, the T-D is competing against national players from Google and Yahoo! to Facebook and Craig’s List. An online reader generates significantly fewer advertising dollars than a print reader does.

Adding insult to injury, online aggregators of news content capture much of the economic value from the T-D‘s news content. We can decry the fact that Google, Facebook and other platforms are parasites on the T-D‘s content creation, but the world isn’t fair. Lamentations do not change reality.

Meanwhile, as the T-D shrinks its newsroom staff, it loses the capacity to create content. Less content for the newspaper = less content for the T-D‘s Richmond.com website. Less website content = fewer page views, and fewer page views = less online revenue. It’s a vicious cycle.

Every newspaper faces comparable challenges. But in the Virginia news eco-system, the Times-Dispatch plays a special role. As the newspaper of record in the state capital, it devotes disproportionate resources to covering the activities of state government. The Washington Post, Virginian-Pilot, Daily Press and Roanoke Times might parachute in every so often for stories that directly impact their readers, but T-D reporters are the ones who provide the routine reporting on meetings and hearings day in, day out. As the newspaper retrenches its coverage of government, accountability will diminish and politicians will run free.

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17 responses to “Why We Should Worry about a Shrinking Times-Dispatch”

  1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    The Roanoke Times is owned by the same company as the Richmond Times Dispatch. I’ve stopped paying for the Richmond paper since a day or so later the key things show up in the Roanoke paper. We’ve got a severe lack of editorial voices in Virginia and this news is additional loss. Very sad and worried about the future. Online news is not the same as news standard reporting and many things have only been revealed to matter after in-depth news reporting that is disappearing rapidly.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well .. look at this: ” Google parent Alphabet Inc. GOOGL -1.02% said quarterly profit soared 24%, the second internet giant in two days to report blockbuster earnings driven by consumers’ rapid shift to mobile devices.

    Alphabet said growth continued as companies bought more ads on its search engine and other products, while users increasingly clicked on those ads. Revenue, fueled by Google’s advertising business, rose 21% to $21.5 billion in the second quarter from a year ago, beating analysts’ average estimate of $20.76 billion.”

    Who knows the business landscape in Richmond especially with regard to ADs better than RTD? They can’t monetize it better than GOOGLE can? Want to find a plumber or electrician or hardware store ? Who knows better than a local entity?

    the thing is , people were paying for news with ads – before – and did not really realize it… the papers had “invented” that business model – and now they need to re-invent because – the kind of news they report is still valuable and bloggers like Jim B are not going to attend government meetings on regular basis to “report”.

    Also – I will NEVER sign up for ANY paper that requires you to provide your credit card and then will auto-charge it at renewal time and the only way to stop it is to “call” and sit and wait or deal with an employee whose job is to keep you from dropping. RTD and others are not going to get there by adopting cable company tactics..

    Here’s what I WILL do – I WILL sign up if I can easily cancel at any time – online.. AND .. I WILL buy articles one at a time… for a reasonable price via a paypal type service and/or by looking at an AD before I can read the article.

    Finally – does anyone know who is BH Media? My GAWD!

    1. BH Media is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is run by Warren Buffett.

      Jeffrey Bezos bought the Washington Post with an idea of subsidizing it and keeping it afloat in the hope that the newspaper could reinvent itself for the digital era. I can’t see Buffett subsidizing his newspapers for long.

  3. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    Without straying too much into the “ideology” sandbox, I would like to point out that while the advertising/business model is a significant problem…Another enormous problem for papers such as the T-D has been the right’s 40 year campaign to discredit ALL media except right-wing media.

    Now look, I’m not defending the national media. Sure, they have a liberal bias. But the Times-Dispatch has performed an invaluable service for the Richmond region and the state with its reporting. Whether every single jot and tittle was completely non-biased is a different question. But overall, the T-D (and other local papers) usually do a good (and often the only) job in trying to bring some accountability to state and local gov’t.

    I realized that the war was lost about five years ago when a conservative friend referred to my local paper as trash. The local paper is the ONLY news organization in my area that does anything approaching reporting on local affairs. Yeah, a tv station may do a 30 second clip, but I don’t consider that reporting. Outside of the “health department restaurant scare story”, I can’t recall the last time a Virginia TV station broke a true investigative story.

    But local conservatives have been so brainwashed that every non right wing outlet is “biased” that they are going to kill the only institutions that hold local and state government accountable. Have fun with yearly tax increases and increasing corruption. So long as no one is reporting, local and state officials are going to stretch the rules as far as they can…..

  4. jhop99 Avatar

    A challenge to all of Jim’s readers:
    Do you live within 100 miles of Richmond?
    Are you taking the RT-D at home?
    Why the hell not?

    At my home in Floyd, I get the shrinking Roanoke Times by mail; it generally arrives on the afternoon of the publication date. Sundays I buy in town, of course. But the T-D pieces printed in the Times are not consistently the most important ones — perhaps because of deadline pressure in Roanoke. I am seriously considering an online subscription to the T-D.

  5. From the RichmondMag blog:

    “Among the newsroom staffers let go were: features editor Pauline Clay, who has worked at the newspaper since 1987; assistant sports editor Bob Flynn, who has worked at the newspaper since 1999; assistant business editor Greg Shriver; photographer Kevin Morley, who has worked for the newspaper since 1984; reporter Katherine Calos, who began working for the Richmond News-Leader in 1974 and joined the RTD after the two newsrooms merged in 1992; arts and culture writer Markus Schmidt, who has worked for the newspaper since 2013; higher education reporter Karin Kapsidelis, who joined the staff in 1981; breaking news reporter Bryan Devasher, who joined the staff in 2007; copy editors Ed Newland and Jack Norton; graphic artist John Ownby, who has worked at the paper since 1988; and designer George Banko.”

    Of these, Karin Kapsidelis is the only one covering a government beat, but it’s an important one — higher education.

    The Roanoke Times covers Virginia Tech, the Daily Progress covers UVa, the Virginian-Pilot covers ODU, etc. I’m sure the T-D will find someone to continue writing about VCU. But who will be covering public higher education as a system? Probably nobody. Except Bacon’s Rebellion.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    The whole “news industry” needs to be rethought. Old school newspapers never got the internet. Maybe they never got computing. They kept printing the newspaper the same way they had been doing it for hundreds of years. The same paper with the same content delivered to everybody. No personalization. I get the same material that my 20 year old son gets.

    People are no less interested in the news today than they were 50 years ago. The world needs news it just doesn’t need newspapers. Meanwhile, Over The Top (OTT) broadcasting is hugely disrupting traditional TV channels. Original content being made by Amazon, Netflix and others not only sells against “free” television but it sells very well. CableTV may well be the next victim of the internet. Why should I buy an overpriced bundle of channels when I only want to watch selected shows?

    What can we learn from all this?

    I think a small, over the top, internet distributed news show could work in Richmond. While people like Jim B would have no interest in the Flying Squirrels people like Peter G would be interested. Jim could subscribe to one set of feeds while Peter would subscribe to a different set of feeds. I think the kind of people who read this blog would like a docu-news approach. Instead of just a 60 second spot on the next vote on whether home schooled kids should be able to play on public sports teams add a 10 minute mini-documentary on home schooling in America. Follow the Spotify model – you can watch for free if you’re willing to let advertisements interrupt your viewing or pay a fee to avoid the ads. Have most of the employees work in a “gig economy” model. They submit what they think are newsworthy videos and, if accepted, they not only get paid they get to be “on TV” as well. You can check what they send against Twitter to verify that something newsworthy really happened.

    Lots of possibilities for getting people the news they want in the modern world without printing newspapers and sending the same information to everybody.

    1. Something like that could work. Maybe. There are enough people out there producing blog posts, videos, podcasts, etc. that perhaps someone could package the content in a form that could generate revenue.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        The problem with bloggers like you is that you are too content focused. I know that seems like a good thing but maybe not. Think about the DrudgeReport. Back in 2012 it was valued at “hundreds of millions of dollars”. It creates no original content. None. But it cleverly segments the customer base (conservatives), is constantly updated and sells very cleverly targeted ads. The question for local blogs would be whether you could micro-target the customer using robo-editors. You create a “build your own blog” capability by letting users pick the categories of news they want to read. You give them a very easy to use “how relevant was this article to you (1 to 10 scale)” so you can fine tune what they really want to read. Then, the tricky part … you “teach” and AI based engine to put articles into the right category with the right political slant. I don’t just need t know that an article concerns the upcoming Virginia governor’s race I need to know if it’s hard right, leans right, neutral, leans left or hard left. Why? Because people want to read the articles that meet their political perspective expectations. I’ve had to stop reading several Virginia blogs as they became screeching bullhorns for one extreme or the other. Technically, I think this could be done. From a business model perspective … could enough eyeballs be aggregated to make it a valuable advertising platform? Maybe.

        1. So, you’re imagining a “Drudge Report” for Virginia…. except that instead of being a conservative news aggregator, subscribers would be able to pick their ideological persuasion?

          1. djrippert Avatar

            Kind of. People pick the topics that interest them. For example, I am uninterested in most of the “power line controversy”. However, I am very interested in the Chesapeake Bay and the 2017 governor’s race. So, those are the topics I pick. Political sentiment is harder because people lie to themselves. We all know snowflakes who call themselves centrist and right wingnuts who say they are “just slightly right of center”. However, feed a right wingnut articles from Blue Virginia and see how fast they stop reading your newsfeed. So, I think we use the software to rate the article along the political spectrum and then ask the reader to rate the article on a 1 to 10 basis. It won’t take long for us to figure out where the reader really stands. From there, we can feed the reader not only articles about the subjects he or she likes but articles that meet his or her political tone as well. Remember, we’re trying to aggregate eyeballs, not educate the Commonwealth. On today’s internet snowflakes gravitate to snowflake sites and wingnuts gravitate to wingnut sites. I want to aggregate articles while still letting people be as closed minded as they want to be.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    the “new” …. “news” … business model …. is to sell folks the news they want to hear – and believe.. and it is working great… for those who do it and not so great for the one’s that don’t or won’t.

  8. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Okay let’s tie this all together – a higher education establishment that caters to the wealthy, giving favorable admissions treatment to its alums and donors, and which leaves middle class students not priced out entirely drowning in debt, and sends out graduates who have been protected from the conservative ideas of our Dead White Guy founders and with no exposure to real academic debate, who then go on to a life not reading newspapers (or books, don’t forget books). Boy if you think 2016 was interesting, the electorate in 2040 is looking even more problematic. The bread and circuses phase of the Decline of the West has begun.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        … and they BREED!

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Would it only that the editorial board of the Post was fired!

    I still think there is room for news outlets that provide exceptional coverage of local news. I can find out what’s going on the White House, Europe or North Korea from a variety of sources. But there’s little coverage of what’s going on in Fairfax County, the General Assembly or McAuliffe’s cabinet. And that’s the stuff that affects me the most.

    The problem with paid media is that it generally offers access to one publication. People don’t read a single publication anymore. I read multiple sources on a line and from different political/economic perspectives. I think the correct economic model is similar to the magazine aggregator Texture founded by a joint venture formed by six leading publishers—Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., Rogers Communications, and Time Inc. I’ve seen a number of people reading this on planes and at airports. I believe it offers one price around $10 bucks a month for access to its catalog of magazines for as many as five devices.

    But I think this one sails over the head of those in the newspaper industry.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    the question is – how much are you willing to pay for “local” news?

    and the answer to this point in time is – “not much”.

    We do have a choice – and we are making it.

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