Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The downsizing of the morning newspaper

My morning paper is downsizing. That's the clearest way of describing it, but News & Observer editor John Drescher took a different angle in his column in Tuesday's edition. He couched the changes as a means of emphasizing local reporting, but there's no getting around the fact that the paper is going to be smaller and, for me, at least, less well organized.

The N&O is eliminating the Triangle section, where they played most of the local and state news that was not worthy of front-page treatment. Drescher says the local/state news will appear in the A section henceforth, but that important news does not get its own section any more, and it will be disconcerting to see articles about the General Assembly mixed in with stories about Iraq and ISIS and typhoons in Japan.

I suspect the N&O had little choice but to cut the number of newsprint pages in each edition. After personnel, newsprint has traditionally been the largest expenditure for daily newspapers. I've been out of the business for six years and haven't kept up with newsprint prices, but I'd wager that newsprint costs are still a major concern for American newspapers.

In the past 10 years, we've witnessed the collapse of the newspaper business. Once one of the most profitable businesses in the country ("a license to print money," some called it), the news business now is tough. Thousands of newspaper veterans have been laid off, and many newspapers have ceased publication. Those that remain have had to make cuts wherever they can.

The heart of their problem is the shift of advertising from print to digital. I can well remember when the Sunday classified section of the N&O ran into dozens of pages — job listings, automobile ads, individual for-sale, services, etc., all neatly "classified" by type. The Washington Post, which was once my morning paper delivered to my doorstep, was so thick and heavy on Sunday, it was a workout just to carry it into the house. But that gold mine of classifieds was doomed. Digital ads made it possible to search through hundreds of thousands of pages for one particular make and model of car or a specific job specialty in a particular place. Print could not match that convenience, and both job listings and other classifieds have nearly disappeared, along with billions of dollars in ad revenue for newspapers.

Alan D. Mutter has followed these issues more closely than I, and he is brutal in his estimate of just how bad a fix print newspapers are in.

For those of us who enjoy a print newspaper (and there still are many of us), this is a sad time. Many newspapers have cut so deeply that news coverage has  suffered badly. Whole categories of news, once covered thoroughly by major newspapers, are largely ignored in this new reality.

I will continue to subscribe because I still find newspapers to be the most effective means of keeping up with what's going on in the area, in the state, in the nation and in the world. Digital searches can find specific items, but turning a newspaper's page can lead you to places you'd never thought of and make you think of things you'd never thought of. 

I have made one concession to the digital news world. When I am out of town and far away from my newspaper lying in my driveway, I can read the newspaper — the actual printed page — using a mobile app. But for as long as I can get my hands on the print edition, I will prefer it, even as it shrinks before my eyes.

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