The Disintegration of Newspapers Accelerates

Woodward and Bernstein. The glory days of newspaper journalism are long gone.
Woodward and Bernstein. The glory days of newspaper journalism are long gone.

by James A. Bacon

The disintegration of the newspaper industry is accelerating. Even as the global advertising market is expected to grow 4% this year, spending on newspaper print ads is expected to decline 8.7% in 2016, according to estimates from GroupM, an ad-buying firm, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. That would be the biggest drop since the last recession. Leading newspaper brands like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are getting clobbered just as hard as the smaller papers.

That decline appears to be matched by a decline in local newspaper advertising spending. I made a quick count of advertising pages in the T-D today. After excluding the non revenue-producing in-house ads and public service ads, the 38-page newspaper edition contained roughly six pages of display and classified advertising, plus a six-page advertorial insert. In the heyday of the newspaper industry, advertising comprised up to 50% of the newspaper lineage.

Newspapers are migrating as rapidly as they can to online advertising, and they are making gains. But they have much more competition in cyberspace, and the revenue yield per eyeball is lower than it is for print. Thus, while a full-page ad in a national paper might run $100 per 1,000 readers, the WSJ reports, prime-time TV ads run about $37. I haven’t checked online advertising recently, but as I recall the cost of banner ads runs around $1 or $2.

Readers of print ads are literally dying off, and so is the print-based business model that supports newsroom staffs that, though shrinking, are still substantial. What everyone needs to contemplate — and that includes Google, Facebook, and all the other technology-driven platforms that have extracted most of the economic value from online readership — is what happens when newspapers begin folding one by one. Who will report the news?

Look at all the online news aggregators — they feed off content created by others. They spend zero, zip, nada on creating content themselves. What happens when their reputable news content dries up? What will they have to aggregate? What will people have to comment upon? These entities will be exposed for the parasites they are.

I frequently chastise local newspapers for voids or failings in their coverage. But that coverage, as imperfect as it is, is vastly preferable to the information sources that would be available if there were no newsrooms. While in-depth investigating reporting is nearly dead in Virginia, reporters still cover important public hearings and other events. Without newspaper reporters, we would have almost no idea of what is happening. (I’m sorry, I don’t take TV news seriously. Local TV covers only the most controversial topics, and their format requires them to boil down complex stories to one- and two-minute snippets that skim the surface.)

Yes, newspapers’ framing of issues is biased (subtly on the part of local media, blatantly on the part of national media) by the values and worldviews of the journalists, who skew center-left. But the journalistic ethic tempers biases by fostering an ideal of objectivity that requires reporters (a) to check facts, and (b) to take note of differing points of view.

As local newsrooms shrink, there will be fewer journalists to cover a society that grows ever more complex. Reporters will know less and less about the topics they are writing about, and their coverage inevitably will become more and more shallow. At some point their value-add will be negligible. Then our main sources of information will be press releases, think tank studies, official presentations at public hearings, commentary, and bloggers unconstrained by journalistic ethics of any kind.

If you thought the state of public discourse in America couldn’t get any worse, think again.

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9 responses to “The Disintegration of Newspapers Accelerates”

  1. In other words, subscribe to your local daily, everyone. They may not be delivering your ideal product, but if we want the news we have no choice.

  2. Larrytheg Avatar

    I subscribe to the local paper, give money to VaNews, VPAP and Wikipedia, and have a WSJ subscription – for now but I very much resent the deceptive way that many newspapers offer low-priced initial subscriptions – that, in the fine print, say that they will auto-extend the subscription until you tell them otherwise – which requires a phone call rather than going online and extending for a set period – or cancel.

    that’s a deceptive and bad practice that totally turns me off so the newspapers that do that are just killing their own businesses as the unsuspecting find out that they were the victim of a deceptive sales practice and folks like me don’t even think about subscribing no matter how inviting the offer sounds – I know somewhere in the “offer” they will “auto-extend”.

    so I feel no pangs of guilt at all… and if they have a hard paywall… which many do now – even those that appear in VaNews… I have no trouble ignoring them and finding other sources anyhow.

    The newspaper business has to adapt and they need to do it in a principled way that offers customers content value and the option of being able to read other papers without demanding a full subscription and without trickery or, in my view. they can go broke and deserve to.

    Some of these guys are so panicked these days, they’ve lost all scruples..they’re more like pay-day lenders and scam artists than providers of news.

    I’d be fine with a micro-pay-by-the article “buffet” (Ebay/paypal) approach – as I do not rely only on one news source anyhow – especially for controversial issues.. I have to see both/many sides before I start to form an opinion… so you’ll also find me switching on a regular basis from CNN to MSN to FOX and C SPAN and then to WIKI and the references in the WIKI.

  3. baconius Avatar

    From reader Terry Carter:

    The Virginian-Pilot announced in its Beacon (tabloid section for Va. Beach) that it is closing its Va Beach bureau (state’s largest city). The paper has for sometimes been publishing sports stories by the Daily Press and might be using even more Washington Post features on Sunday than in the past.

    The seed corn has been eaten and digested.

    As cool weather approaches, they’re burning furniture to heat the building.

  4. A timely posting, given the critique of our political process (and the role of the press in it) that is bound to engulf us as soon as this damned election is put behind us.

    But do we really value the press like we should? We talk about those well-educated Millenials, and they are well-educated, and also they are bombarded by media of all kinds and they have learned to reject much of it in favor of highly-focused snippets of information supplied on their time-schedule. They don’t have the patience or breadth of interest to turn the pages of a general-purpose local newspaper. If they want to buy something they go online to look for it, specifically or on the likes of Craigs-List, not browse through ads or yellow-pages or (gasp) the classified ads.

    So, your question, who will report the news, is the right one. But it has a corollary: who will read the news?

  5. Larrytheg Avatar

    re: “who will report the news”… “who will read the news”….

    in this day and time who will “believe” the “news” or whose “news” will be “believed” by who?

    no joke. these days – we have to have “fact checkers” – and now… we question/doubt/disbelieve … the “fact checkers”.. Wikipedia is “slanted” , etc…

    so.. folks go find websites that agree with their beliefs, eh?

    who would have thought in the “information age” that “facts” become contested and disputed – rejected?

    so “news” these days has more issues than just what is on paper or local website…

    Even a description of something like Social Security becomes a contest of different versions of what it is and is not and even – how the Government describes it – is questioned…

  6. Larrytheg Avatar

    one of the biggest ironies with the papers – and the loss of AD advertising is how GOOGLE became one of the biggest and richest companies in the world – AD revenue!

    How come GOOGLE can make billions of dollars on AD revenue, have many of their employees become rich – and still have tons of money left over to spend for things most companies would consider frivolous and money losing?

    And ESPECIALLY SO for LOCAL businesses in a LOCAL newspaper ?

    It’s just inexplicable to me that I cannot easily find something like a plumber via the local online newspaper – but I CAN with things like Angie’s List and other national entities.

    It makes no sense. I’d MUCH RATHER use a LOCAL search for LOCAL businesses but the search the local paper does provide just totally sucks… why?

  7. Re: who will report/read, Larry I completely agree with you. The questions you leave hanging are the subject of two good p.A1 articles in the WP today, by Dan Balz and Marc Fisher. It’s one thing to believe the facts support your man, another to believe only the facts that support your man, yet another to believe that the only facts presented by media to the public are pre-screened through some sort of conspiracy.

  8. Re: the classifieds etc., I have to say, the market has spoken on that one. Search engines are far more flexible than reading the classifieds, and Craigs List costs both the seller and the buyer less. And even for those of us for whom the cost of the ad isn’t the obstacle (or we simply wish to show our loyalty to the print media for old times sake), if I want to sell that old lamp or give away that kitten, I’m going to put the listing where it will be seen by the greatest number of my target audience. So the big city newspapers and the suburban newspapers have been left behind. Interestingly, classifieds are still used in rural areas like Mathews County, where a lot of the population still doesn’t have reliable or fast internet access or the familiarity with it, but I think for even the rural papers it’s just a matter of time. I’m all for the experiment the WP has conducted upon itself, selling the newspaper to Jeff Bezos — as the WP leadership frankly admitted (in effect) at the time of the sale, “we ourselves can’t see a way past the decline of print media advertising revenue, but we respect Bezos’ ability to make a buck with Amazon in this new commercial medium (the internet) and believe if anybody can find a way to reinvigorate and reinvent the newspaper business to compete in this new setting it will be him.” Let’s hope so.

  9. Larrytheg Avatar

    I think phones are the “internet” of last resort for those without land-line internet… and on the “local” versus “national” searches for local repair – do a little test and see if local plumbers .. have websites and have an internet “presence” … you will see that in urbanized areas …but the further out you get the spottier it gets… yes you’ll find some mention of some tradesmen on the internet usually through yellow pages… etc….

    My bet is that down Mathews way – if you need a plumber… “word of mouth” is still a way used by many… as well as the local paper…

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