The (Sigh) News About The News

The news business in America has been in the news a lot recently, and unfortunately the news is pretty much all bad.

Two of our most storied newspapers, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, have been sold for a small fraction of their value only a decade ago.  The New York Times, which bought the Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion, sold it to billionaire John Henry for only $70 million.  What’s worse, the Times retained liability for the Globe’s pension obligations, which reportedly total more than $100 million.  If you do the math, that means the Times basically lost its entire $1.1 billion investment over 20 years.  Although the Times tried to justify its sale as an effort to focus on its core “brand,” it’s obvious the sale sought to unload a money pit that the Times didn’t know how to turn around.

The Washington Post and related publishing businesses were sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250 million.  Although the price was higher than the pittance paid for the Globe, it still shocked the journalism world because it was much lower than the Post‘s expected value and because it ended the long-time ownership of the Graham family.  Both the Post and the Globe have been troubled by the same trends that have plagued other newspapers — declining circulation and a business model based on paper, with all of its attendant costs, when the rest of the world is moving full throttle into digital communications.

In addition to the fire sale prices paid for these two legendary publications, recent journalism news has seen continuing layoffs of reporters, editors, and other members of newspaper staffs.  Last week, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off about one-third of its editorial staff.

One sign of the desperate times in the news business is the effort to see the silver lining in Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post.  Some people in the journalism industry hope that Bezos, who has taken Amazon from an on-line bookseller to its current status as an ever-expanding conglomerate powerhouse, may be able to figure out what has stumped others in the journalism business:  how to make the daily newspaper something that everybody will read, and happily pay for, again.

The PD Goes PT

Earlier this week the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced some significant changes in its operations.

IMG_2838The PD will still print a newspaper seven days a week and make it available at newsstands and other outlets, but home delivery will be limited to three days a week, one of which will be Sunday.  A new, digitally focused company will be formed, and the content for the print edition will be used on the digital platform.  If you subscribe for the three-day delivery deal, you will also receive access to a seven-day digital news website.  In addition, reports say that about a third of the newspaper’s reporters, as well as members of management, will be laid off.

We’ll have to see how this works, but my guess is that a three-day home delivery schedule won’t last long.  People who want to read a daily newspaper in paper form will want to do so every day.  For them, it’s part of the daily routine, not something they choose to do only on, say, Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday.  If their newspaper won’t deliver every day, my guess is that they won’t drive to the nearest convenience store to pick up a copy — they’ll either try to find a newspaper that does deliver every day or they will do without every day.

The layoff of a big chunk of the editorial staff also tells you something about electronic news sources.  They just aren’t as robust in the news gathering, and crucial editing and fact-checking, functions as a printed daily newspaper will be.  People who read news digitally don’t look at the entire content and say — as a daily newspaper subscriber will — that the size of the newspaper has really shrunk.  The digital subscriber will go to the website for a few stories, but not the deep dive a daily reader often takes.  The inevitable result is less content, and less coverage of the smaller stories that often are the most important.

The newspaper business is changing.  Those who want to see what the future will bring would do well to keep their eye on the PD‘s big experiment.

Save The PD!

Cleveland’s lone daily newspaper is the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  It’s hard to imagine the City by the Lake without the PD — but now employees of the newspaper are raising that possibility.

The PD has been hit by declining circulation.  In 2007, its circulation was 334,194 (daily) and  445,795 (Sunday).  In 2012 its circulation was 246,571 (daily) and 401,134 (Sunday).  In short, its paid readership has fallen sharply, and it likely has suffered a similar drop in ad revenues.

The Plain Dealer staff apparently has been advised that cutbacks of some kind are likely.  The Newspaper Guild Local that represents PD journalists has decided to approach the issue proactively, by buying billboards advising the public of the possible cuts and urging readers to not let the PD “fade away.” There’s also a “SaveThePlainDealer” Facebook page with the same message.

I was up in Cleveland on Monday and saw one of the “Save the PD” billboards, and it was as jarring as when I heard that Art Modell was moving the Browns to Baltimore.  It was impossible to imagine Cleveland without the Browns, and it’s just as impossible to imagine the city without the Plain Dealer.  It’s long been a leading newspaper in Ohio, and the idea that it might reduce its operations — or stop publishing a print edition altogether — is unthinkable.

The problem, however, is one of economics.  Writing, printing, and distributing a daily uses lots of materials and employees; publishing on-line doesn’t.  More and more, people get information from the internet, where new content appears all the time.  When you compare the cost and nimbleness of the web to physical newspapers that are delivered to your doorstep, the latter strikes many people as a kind of anachronistic antique, like the telegraph or stagecoach travel.  For that reason, the Newspaper Guild’s campaign may well face an uphill battle.

On Early Voting In Ohio

In Ohio, early voting already is in full swing.  Voters here will have more than a month before Election Day to cast their ballots.  It’s one of the reasons why the Obama and Romney campaigns have been so active here recently, with visits from the candidates and their surrogates, lots of TV ads, and extensive “ground games” and door-knocking efforts.  (For an interesting Cleveland Plain Dealer article that attempts to assess the relative strength of the Romney and Obama “ground games” in Ohio, see here.)

According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website, in 2008, more than 1.7 million Ohioans cases either early “in person” ballots or traditional mail-in absentee ballots.  That’s about 30 percent of the 5.77 million votes cast overall in Ohio in 2008.  The conventional wisdom is that early voting favors Democratic candidates, because Democrats tend to have jobs that cause them to work odd hours.  (How would anyone test that little bit of CW, by the way?)  Given the size of the “early voting” bloc, is there any wonder that the campaigns are trying to make sure that they maintain a strong presence in Ohio throughout the early voting period, in hopes of catching wavering undecided voters who can be persuaded by the dedicated campaign volunteers at their doors to fill out and send in their ballots?

I like voting in person on Election Day.  It’s one of the true common communal experiences we have in our diverse and sprawling nation, and the quiet act of voting with my fellow citizens always makes me feel good about living in a democracy.  But I also think that early voting is curious, because it means that citizens are voting on the basis of different sets of information.  People who vote on October 7 obviously can’t consider what happens in the remaining month before Election Day.  What if there were some huge scandal, or game-changing incident during that intervening period?  Wouldn’t you want to wait until you have all of the relevant information before you cast your ballot?

This year, I wonder how many people have cast their ballots on the basis of the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.  If you’re President Obama, aren’t you hoping that early voters at least hold off until after the second debate, when you have a chance to improve upon your initial performance?

Horseshoe Hotbox (II)

As predicated, the Ohio State-Akron game was a hotbox.  The game featured blazing sunshine and temperatures that reached near the century mark.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that medics treated dozens of people for heat-related conditions, and University officials opened up cooler areas of the Stadium, including the band room, for people suffering from the effects of the heat.  As for the band itself, members received bags of ice to place on their baking noggins, as shown in the Cleveland Plain Dealer photo at left.  The TV report on the game showed that a huge number of alumni band members fled for shaded areas and ice water rather than endure the cruel heat and sun in the stands.

As bad as the spectator seating was, the field was worse.  One official had to leave the game, and the trainers were working overtime to keep players hydrated and cooled off.  Normally temperatures in the 80s at game time produce lots of cramps, but there didn’t seem to be many yesterday.  Perhaps that is a sign that this year’s Buckeye squad is particularly well-conditioned.

It will be good to get into true football weather — for fans, players, bandies, and officials alike.