The Day The C-J Died

Our J-School friend Snow recently changed jobs and was cleaning out his office.  As part of the process, he wanted to recycle a literal page of Columbus history — a framed copy of the last front page of the Columbus Citizen-Journal.  Rather than putting it into a box in the basement that never would be seen again, he asked if I wanted it, and I said sure.

img_8229Columbus used to be a two-newspaper town.  There was the Columbus Dispatch, of course, and the Columbus Citizen-Journal.  The Dispatch was the established afternoon newspaper, in the days when many newspapers were delivered around 4 p.m. so people coming home from work could catch up on the news before dinner, and the C-J was the morning option.  The Dispatch, owned by a prominent local family, was a dominant force, and its articles could shake the political foundations in downtown Columbus.  The C-J, a part of the Scripps-Howard chain, tried to be the lighter, spunky competitor.

But reading tastes changed, and when it became clear that afternoon newspapers were going the way of the dodo, the Dispatch decided it needed to become a morning paper to survive.  An agreement under which the Dispatch printed the C-J was due to expire, and after much hand-wringing the agreement was allowed to lapse.  In those pre-internet days, becoming an on-line newspaper was not an option, and with no way to print itself the C-J was inevitably doomed.  The Columbus Citizen-Journal therefore printed its last edition, shown above, on December 31, 1985, and Columbus officially became a one-newspaper town the next day.

At the time, that seemed like a very bad thing.  I marched in the “Save the C-J Brigade” during the 1985 Doo-Dah Parade, and thought that if Columbus wanted to be a big city it needed to have a second newspaper that could provide an alternative perspective.  And, of course, having two newspapers promotes competition and better reporting.  But it turned out that Columbus was just on the leading edge of a trend that has seen many newspapers turn off their presses and many big cities become one-newspaper towns.  In the digital age, newspapers struggle to compete with online news sources that deliver the news instantaneously and around the clock, and the online sources have rushed in to fill the content void that was created by the closure of so many daily newspapers.  Even the Dispatch, once so dominant, has seen its pages and circulation shrink.

Thirty-four years later, how many people in Columbus remember the C-J, or even know that at one time there was a second newspaper in town?  It’s important, of course, to hear alternative viewpoints — particularly in these politically divided days — but maybe daily print newspapers are not the best way, technologically and culturally, to supply those viewpoints.  In reality, for all of the dire predictions, Columbus has done pretty well as a one-newspaper town.

Advertisements

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.

Daily No More

By the year after next, don’t expect to see a daily newspaper hitting your doorstep each morning — according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, that is.

The Nieman Journalism Lab looks to future trends in journalism.  Last month, it predicted that the seven-day print newspaper is doomed.  It forecasts that newspapers increasingly will focus on digital publication and that by 2015 less than half of current newspapers will follow the seven-day, home delivery model.  Instead, print newspapers will be reduced to a two or three times a week vestigial option, offered as part of a much broader set of services and benefits available to “members.”

And rather than those irritating paywalls, the digital membership model would be like membership in your local public TV station,  giving you complete access and providing discounts and other benefits (presumably not just the tote bags and coffee mugs you see on every PBS fundraiser, either).  The membership model would allow the newspaper to act as a kind of mini-Google, collecting information about the news stories you access and then delivering targeted advertising based upon your reading pattern — advertising that retailers presumably would pay a premium for, because it is more likely to find a receptive audience than the tire ad on page C-7 of the sports section of your daily newspaper.

The most interesting prediction is that newspapers will focus less on news and more on “jobs to be done.”  The jobs would include reporting news, but also assisting members in making connections to services and groups in their communities, giving recommendations and answering questions, and helping members meet the right people in the right settings.  It sounds something like a combination of Emily’s List and Dear Abby.

I agree that the daily printed newspaper model cannot survive forever; it’s simply too slow, and expensive, to compete with digital delivery of the news.  Readership and ad revenues are ever-declining, too.  I’m a bit skeptical, however, that daily newspapers can successfully morph into quasi-social networking sites and then hold their own in that area, where there also is a lot of competition.  What newspapers do, better than anyone else, is find and report hard news — not opinion, nor advice, but actual facts about events and issues that should be of concern to members of their communities.  If newspapers move away from that area of strength to some more amorphous, soft-side model, they may be losing their identities and digging their own graves.

Is there still a market for hard news — without tote bags, membership benefits, and social networking gloss?  We’ll find out over the next few years.

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.

The Incredible Shrinking Newspaper

Kish and I don’t subscribe to our local daily newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, any more and have not subscribed for some time now.  That probably seems strange for a married couple who were both journalism majors in college and who love good reporting, but the reason for our decision was simple — we got to the point where we never really read the newspaper anymore.  It typically was delivered to the house after we had left for work in the morning, and by the time we got home from work at night the morning news was old news.  We’d read the news from the morning hours before, and the internet allowed us to get totally up-to-the-minute news with a few keystrokes.  

Because I don’t get the Dispatch anymore I was surprised when I picked up the firm’s copy recently. It seems so small, both in its dimensions and in its bulk.  The front section and the local news section have shrunk considerably.  It appears that the paper is more focused on sports coverage and content — like articles on food preparation, comics, how-to and popular culture features, and opinion columns — that have more staying power than a transitory news item that could become cold in the blink of an eye.  No doubt this is an economic response to shriveled subscriptions and dropping ad revenues as well as a reflection of what readership surveys are saying.  My guess is that the Dispatch is no different from every other daily newspaper in America in this regard.

The days of a thick newspaper landing on your doorstep with a satisfying thwack, and when a leisurely review of the newspaper would take a good chunk of Sunday morning, are long gone, never to return.  The only question is whether metropolitan daily newspapers, delivered in paper form, will survive in any form, or will soon go the way of the buggy whip.  Unfortunately, if I had to bet, I think the latter scenario is more likely.