“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
— Bertha Calloway, activist and historian
“People are hysterical about the death of newspapers, and I would say, ‘They’re not dying; they’re just kind of reinventing themselves.’”
— Jared Kushner, former publisher of Observer Media and son-in-law of Donald Trump
Rhode Island Monthly magazine, in its investigation published last December about the evolving evaporation of the country’s “oldest continuously published daily newspaper,” The Providence Journal, illuminated two imperatives for the viability of the print newspaper: serving the public and making money. Over the last two decades those two objectives have not lived in peaceful harmony, so the Journal joins the ranks of The Boston Globe and other big newspapers in their daily struggle to avoid writing their own obituaries.
But what are the real reasons for the decline of the newspaper business?
Video may have killed the radio star, and likewise, the growth of television news may have killed the evening edition of newspapers. Yet despite widespread popular belief to the contrary, the digital disruption of Internet is not killing the printed newspaper. In fact, newspapers’ embrace of all things digital, begun in earnest 20 years ago, may be more to blame; it has diverted their attention from the core product.
Writing in politico.com last October, Jack Shafer, a journalist and media commentator, wondered why print news has been “chasing the online chimera.” For years, Shafer asserts, “the standard view in the newspaper industry has been that print newspapers will eventually evolve into online editions and reconvene the mass audience newspapers enjoy there. But that’s not what’s happening. Readers continue to leave print newspapers, but they’re not migrating to the online editions.”
A recent study determined that there has been almost zero growth in online readership of the top 51 online newspapers since 2007. While total newspaper print revenues (circulation and advertising) have plunged from $22.8 billion to $16.4 billion from 2010 to 2014, they still represent 82 percent of total newspaper revenue.
Online versions, therefore, have not entirely cannibalized hardcopy versions. From September 2015 to August 2016, total paid distribution of the print edition of The Boston Globe, for instance, averaged 136,196, while electronic sales during the same period averaged 88,047.
Offering another view, as a scathing indictment, Lee Procida, in reassociated.press, demands: “Stop Blaming The Internet For Killing Newspapers. Start Blaming Editors.” As the leaders of newsrooms, he says, editors “have largely gotten off the hook in the modern tragedy of newspapers.” Additionally, Procida writes, “rethinking the content newspapers produce is a fundamental evolutionary step toward saving the quality journalism newsrooms are capable of, but journalists hardly even acknowledge it as a possibility.”
But Robert Whitcomb has some valuable observations, too.
Whitcomb retired as editorial page editor of The Providence Journal in 2013, after 44 years in the business. Straight out of central casting, he still looks like the old-school editor you remember: tortoise-rimmed glasses, graying hair, complementary jacket and tie, brimming with Yankee sensibilities. After working in the summer of 1969 for the old tabloid The Boston Record American, he began his full-time career in 1970 as a writer for The Boston Herald Traveler, and has also held editorial positions at The Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune (where he was the finance editor), among other publications.
He believes that the transition of much newspaper ownership from privately held family arrangements to publicly-held corporate structures has accelerated the decline of the industry more than any other factor. The resulting product of these changes has led to layoffs in staffing and a reduction in journalistic standards. Furthermore, despite so-called allegiances to “local coverage,” many editorial decisions are made by corporate parents far away from local journalists.
A report, “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” explains these developments and supports Whitcomb’s thesis. More than 33 percent of U.S. newspapers have changed ownership since 2004, including the Journal and the Globe. “At the end of 2004, the three largest companies owned 487 newspapers with a combined circulation of 9.8 million. Today, the three largest companies own about 900 papers that have a combined circulation of 12.7 million.”
Because of this disturbing trend, “profits derived from cost cutting have not been reinvested to improve their newspapers’ journalism, but used instead to pay loans, management fees, and shareholder dividends.”
The real motivation behind owning and operating a newspaper today, Whitcomb says, is “money and influence.” And he predicts that The Providence Journal (now owned by GateHouse Media) within five years may not print a daily edition and he believes many more are in jeopardy of suspending daily editions. There were 126 fewer newspapers in 2014 than in 2004 and 20,000 positions have been eliminated from 1994 to 2014.
Not all hope is gone, however grim the new realities appear. Some new owners are experimenting with a business model of reinvention — not liquidation — that is reminiscent of the old-fashioned press lord. Whitcomb looks favorably at this development and points to The Washington Post.
Since acquiring the Post three years ago for $250 million, and pulling its finances out of the public eye and distancing himself from editorial decisions (at least publicly), Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has reinvigorated the paper. “Many U.S. newspapers would benefit from a steward willing to sacrifice short-term profit for a longer-term vision,” wrote Jennifer Saba, in breakingviews.com.
John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, purchased The Boston Globe in 2013, and he apparently holds a similar vision. “Stewardship carries,” he wrote, “obligations and responsibilities to citizens first and foremost — not to shareholders. This is especially true for news organizations.”
It is fascinating to watch the Journal and the Globe (under different ownership structures) navigate the storm.
Henry Ward Beecher in Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, with a romance of ink and pulp unrecognizable today, wrote, “That endless book, the newspaper, is our national glory.” Maybe. But for realists, like Robert Whitcomb, the printed paper may go the way of the sailboat. Diminished in the fleet of massive global seafaring vessels surely, but, nonetheless, “still around.”
James P. Freeman, a frequent contributor to New England Diary, is a New England-based writer and former Cape Cod Times columnist as well as a financial-services professional. This piece first ran in New Boston Post, a conservative-leaning news and commentary Web site.