The news about newspapers

Newspapers – and therefore journalism – will be changed forever by this economic downturn.

For many American publications, the looming recession is speeding up the deterioration in the newspaper industry which has been happening for some time. The respected Christian Science Monitor – a non-profit – announced last week that it would cease publishing a daily paper after a century.

The Los Angeles Times retrenched 75 more people in their third recent round of firings. This leaves them with half the newsroom staff they had eight years ago. The New York Times Company has lost 700 jobs since May.

Time Inc, publishers of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, cut 600 jobs. Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, laid off 10 percent of its work force — about 3 000 people.

Two weeks ago, TV Guide, one of the most famous names in magazines, was sold for one dollar, less than the price of a single copy. Cuts have also been announced recently at the Boston Globe, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism expressed concern that the bottom was about to drop out for the US industry. In its annual State of the News Media report, it said already ill newspapers got sicker in 2007 with no hope for a cure in 2008.

US newspaper advertising revenue fell 7% last year, before the current downturn. The big drop-off was in classified adverts, which fled to the Internet. Circulation was down 2.5% for all US dailies and 3.5% for Sunday papers, it said.

As the New York Times put it: “Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it,” when reporting these developments.

The problem is that audiences are moving faster to the Internet than advertising, so while newspaper websites attracted 15,8 percent more visitors in the third quarter of 2008 than a year ago, the sites are not yet generating the income to fund news-gathering.

Newspapers are turning themselves into news operations offering material across a range of media. But the financial model to sustain this has not yet emerged.

At home, our tabloids are booming, but almost every one of the older, more traditional newspapers – English and Afrikaans – have the same or smaller circulations than they did 40 years ago.

Some, especially those whose readers will be the first to move to the Internet, are making plans to cut back. Media24 is looking into merging editorial departments at its Afrikaans newspapers – Beeld, Burger, Volksblad and Rapport.

Peet Kruger, Beeld editor and head of the task team investigating this, told me this week that he was “preparing presentations to management and the board” on this.

“We believe that we have to prepare ourselves for a possible internet wave (tsunami has become such a cliche, but I guess that is what it could turn out to be) in the next couple of years.

“We plan to strengthen our paper products, position even better for strong internet growth, enable our journalists to operate across platforms, and improve quality of journalism for the markets in which we operate across all platforms,” he said.

The Sunday Times has launched the Times and thrown resources into its website. It is breaking up its audience in order to hold on to them, but it is the Sunday edition which is still the generator of revenue.

I have heard, but not been able to confirm, that Independent newspapers are planning to merge all their sub-editing operations into a central machinery. Their newspapers are heavy carriers of classifieds, the first form of advertising to move from print to online.

Although Internet uptake has stalled in this country, the expectation is that it will take off when the new undersea cables being laid make it cheaper and faster. This may take a while to impact the Daily Sun, but will quickly affect up-market papers.

The changes will make newspapers more efficient and cost-effective, and are probably unavoidable. The effect, however, will be to increase the homogeneity of newspapers across the major groups and diminish the individual character of each publication.

Areas of specialist interest (like coverage of law or science) will increasingly move to the Internet, but this means more blogging, opinion and speculation. There will probably be less and less traditional reporting, the act of journalists treading the streets to observe what is going on in the world. Unless, that is, it involves Britney Spears or David Beckham, a form of reporting which still pays for itself.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 12 November 2008

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