Newspapers are dying: Time to focus on what’s next

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Photo Credit: fotosipsak/iStock Photo

My colleague Scott German was telling me a story from his days selling ads at The News Virginian, back 30-plus years ago.

We’re talking mid-1980s in Waynesboro, Va.

Which had one local AM radio station, no local TV.

The paper was the king of all media, as far as local business was concerned.

Scott had the plum accounts: the car dealers, downtown.

It was like printing money, for Scott, and for the paper.

Where else were the car dealers and downtown business owners going to go to advertise?

This thought seized the publisher, who decided that the paper was practically giving away the ad stock, that it was time to raise rates, dramatically.

The thinking being: what are they going to do? Stop advertising?

It was Scott’s job to deliver the news to his accounts.

He had a letter typed up from the publisher with him that went into a song and dance about printing costs going up, yada, yada, yada.

One local car dealer who was a regular advertiser saw through the song and dance.

“This is all bullshit,” he said, waving the letter, “but you know what, you’ve got me by the balls.”

He had cars to sell. He’d pay the higher rates.

“I’ve got no choice,” he said.

But he left Scott with an ominous warning.

“It’s not going to be this way forever, and I hope to live to see the day when you assholes go out of business.”

***

That day is … almost here.

The news hit close to home again last week when the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot announced the departures of 20 staffers who were termed to be accepting company buyouts.

Nice way of putting it, accepting company buyouts, when if you don’t accept the buyout, what happens then? Because they don’t want you to come to work on Monday either way.

So, you take the buyout.

You’re still getting let go.

Loads of experience gets lost in these moves, as bean-counters in far-flung corporate offices throw away decades of experience in favor of cheaper alternatives in the form of kids just out of J-school.

As whipper-snapper as the kids are, they don’t know where the bodies are buried, but that’s neither here nor there when it comes to the bottom line.

As long as the kids can crank out copy, there will be things for readers to click on, and that’s what matters, not the quality, certainly not the impact that a local newspaper can have on the part of the world that it serves.

We’re spun on the moves being a necessity because of the changing media landscape, because people don’t read papers like they used to, because advertisers have fled to Facebook, to Google, which, actually, yeah, all of that is true.

It didn’t have to be.

***

Newspapers had the hegemon position for time immemorial. The editor could pen a column and get immediate action from the City Council or Board of Supervisors. The publisher’s main concern was who to play golf with on Wednesday afternoon.

The advent of the internet was, at the outset, a nuisance. I was a cub reporter at The News Virginian in the mid-1990s, and my first newsroom didn’t even get an internet-equipped terminal until 1997, and we’re talking one, that we all had to share.

It was a novelty. No one was thinking, we need to do something with this, maybe we can use this to complement our strategic advantage in the marketplace.

I remember suggesting in a weekly staff meeting, brash cub reporter that I was, that we think about launching a newspaper website, among several things, including forging relationships with the local radio station and the TV stations in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, as ways to increase our visibility.

The publisher looked at me like I had grown a second head.

“Son, we’re the newspaper,” he growled at me, and that was that.

He went off to play golf, I went off to City Hall to snoop around at what they were doing with your local tax dollars, and the world went on as it had for decades.

***

And then, the world turned upside down.

I’m thinking back to an interview that I did with a local telecom executive back in 1997. It was for a newspaper insert that the paper called Update, essentially an excuse to write about local business to get them to spend money on top of whatever else they were spending, because this was a special section.

Yeah, I know, I don’t get it, either, but, again, the papers were hegemons, dictating terms.

The exec told me about something that was coming called personal communications service, PCS, and when this PCS was fully formed, whoa, it was going to change the world.

He might as well have told me that we were all going to soon be taking vacations to the moon, but what he was talking about was mobile phones.

The story he sold me on was how these PCS devices were going to eventually be able to tap into this internet thing to let people read newspapers from all over the world, right there in their hands.

And then I went out and got myself a flip phone, which couldn’t do that, and then a better flip phone, still, nothing.

And then a Blackberry, which, OK, I could start to see where this was going.

That local telecom exec had told me 10 years before the debut of the iPhone that the iPhone was coming, that it was going to change the way information would be disseminated from there on out.

The telecom folks knew; how did the newspaper folks not know?

They had structural advantages out the yin-yang. Our 11,000-circulation newspaper had 20 people full time in the news, sports and design departments, enough to cover two cities, a county, seven local high schools, a region as big as several small U.S. states.

It hit me one night, working the copy desk at deadline, that the second they cranked up the press, it was already old news, because things were still happening, and we wouldn’t be able to tell people about it for 24 hours.

We had all these people who knew what was going on, but we were so focused on the printed product that we weren’t using them right.

Because there wasn’t money to be made that way, was the reason why, except that there was money to be made that way.

Craigslist was the first shot across the bow, in short order making the classifieds, a key part of the bottom line for newspapers everywhere, a thing of the past.

Newspapers could have foreseen Craigslist, though, right, and beaten Craigslist to the punch?

How did they miss out on something that in retrospect had to be obvious?

The answer probably has to do with why the dinosaurs that once ruled the earth are now the source of the fossil fuels that we’re using to heat the planet toward the next mass extinction.

Old habits are hard to break, especially habits that involve making money hand over fist.

“Son, we’re the newspaper.”

Makes a nice epitaph.

***

There is no less demand for information; in fact, that demand is destined to increase, to infinity and beyond.

Which means, the need for people who can synthesize information into digestible bits isn’t going away.

The buyouts hit people in my business hard, because all anybody can talk about is, when is it my turn?

I’m fortunate that my turn came way back in 2002. My wife and I were working for a weekly in Charlottesville that was months from going belly-up, and we left and decided, not at all wisely, to launch the first iteration of Augusta Free Press.

It took us years to make any money at it. Think back to 2002 as to why that might be. Half my day was explaining to people that, no, we didn’t have a print paper, yes, people actually read us, no, I’m not actually independently wealthy.

The model for how AFP made it from 2002 to where we are today in 2020 is the model for the next generation of local media.

Throw as many resources as you can into the news side. I’m partial to having at least one veteran leading things in news, a guy or gal who knows where the bodies are buried, then teaching the kids to be proper parts cynical and cheerleading to be able to build authority, trust and over time an audience.

And then, on the business side, it’s not like it was back in the days when the focus was on the Wednesday afternoon tee time. The ad-sales folks don’t just sell ads; they sell marketing services, website-design services, social-media services.

Small business, in particular, faces steep challenges in terms of navigating the new and still-developing marketplace.

To a degree, it was easier for them, too, back in the day, when they could just buy an ad in the local paper. Now you have to know how to build an audience across multiple social-media and web-advertising platforms, and because of scale, you’re not just competing with the mom-and-pop down the street or across town, but also corporate behemoths like Amazon that can deliver products to your customers’ front doors better than you can.

The advantage the local media company of the 21st century has is that they have boots on the ground that the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons can’t have.

Anybody who has ever tried to actually get somebody from Facebook, Google or Amazon on the phone to talk through a technical issue knows what I’m talking about there.

You wonder if there are living human beings working there, or if it’s just an interweb of algorithms.

That’s the money side to the local news. Marry that with the news side, like has been done since the late 18th century, and, boom.

***

The reason this isn’t happening is …

The dinosaurs, our source of fossil fuels.

You rule the earth one day, an asteroid falls out of the sky, things change, and suddenly, you don’t rule the earth anymore.

That my wife and I have been able to carve out a nice living in an outpost like Waynesboro should tell you that there’s something to the model.

Our advantage was that we didn’t have big buildings full of people to pay, printing presses worth mints that we had to keep cranking to justify the investment.

The newspaper industry has gotten bigger in response to the challenges of the current media landscape, in the sense that what used to be your local newspaper has been bought and sold many times over, and is run by one of those algorithms that doesn’t know Waynesboro except as a series of 0s and 1s.

It’s hard for big things to adapt.

See: dinosaurs, and my repeated references herein.

If I wasn’t enjoying such a nice existence in my quiet outpost in Waynesboro, I’d maybe join in the fun the folks at The Athletic are having, with a focus not on sports, because they’ve got that market cornered, but it seems to me that there’s a place for some scale in something similar in the local-news sphere.

The success of The Athletic has been in its founders’ ability to raise millions from venture capitalists to fund their vision, and it seems to me that the opportunity is there for someone to riff off what they’re doing in sports to build the foundation for the next generation of local news.

So many of the other pieces seem to be in place. Look at all the talented, veteran journalists out there looking for ways to be productive. There’s your building block.

Pair them up with kids from business schools that you can send out to Main Street to get small business into 21st century marketing, and there you go.

The readers will come.

The world will always revolve around information.

There will always be a need for media.

Newspapers are dying.

Rest in peace.

It’s time to focus on what’s next.

Story by Chris Graham



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