Monday, August 10, 2009

A Puzzling Letter From the Publisher

The single strong impression I took away from Roanoke Times Publisher Debbie Meade's (right) looooong (1,834 words ), full-page ad in the Sunday edition is that the paper could really use a PR representative. I can recommend several good ones.

It was difficult to tell if the "letter" was motivated by a genuine effort to make certain we're not believing the "newspapers are dead" mantra being spoken by so many (me among them), desperation because most of us are believing it, or some other more esoteric view.

She insists The Times is making money (I believe that), that it is healthy (depends on the definition of "healthy," I'd say) and that it will be here as is for the duration (I definitely don't believe that). My guess is that, like the rest of us in print, the end of the paper era is near and the beginning of the digital era is upon us. Not just in a marginal sense, but--very soon--as our primary outlet.

The Times has lost a lot of its economic base in the past couple of years and it's not just the Bush economy talking here. The paper won't get back what Craig's List took and I'm not confident the automobile advertisers are long for the print world, either. Look at the dollars involved in either classified or car ads. They're huge. Real estate is gone to its own genre of magazine (that god-awful Laker publication The Times owns is hardly more than a bad real estate magazine for Smith Mountain Lake). The Times' business publication, the Blue Ridge Business Journal, which I left a year ago after 20 years there, is in the toilet, bleeding money and so devoid of content that many, many people in business tell me they don't even open it any more. It goes from the mail to the trash.

The Times has cut a lot of its higher salaries in the past two years with buyouts and firings and that has not been done without losing what those talented, experienced people contributed to the product: quality, institutuional knowledge, a real concern for our communities.

One point I have tried to stress in every conversation about the future of journalism is that newspapers are not journalism. They are a journalism delivery system. Journalists are journalism and I don't see them going anywhere. We are simply faced with the challenge of making journalism pay these good people a liveable wage in the neighborhood of what they've always made (that would mean less than a pipefitter, but more than an entry-level elementary school teacher).

The joke among the reporters in the newsroom in recent months is that The Times has a goal of "being the best 40,000-circulation newspaper in Virginia," understanding that its circulation now is somewhere around 90,000. That is funny. Sadly funny because it speaks to me of morale problems (newsies are chronically discontent and always have been, but this seems deeper) and perhaps gives an inkling of the regard they have for those leading the charge.

A number of people have accused me of cheering for the demise of newspapers and that simply isn't true. I grew up a newspaperman (back when it was called that). I always liked newspapers. But it's a different age and we need to be part of that age. Newspapers won't be.

1 comment:

  1. And doggone if that letter hasn't been reprinted in today's RT (Wednesday, Aug. 12)!

    Anybody want to take bets on how many more times it will be recycled?