Friday, August 22, 2014

Commentary: The Death Throes of the Daily Paper

New York reporters in the 1920s, when newspapers were king (and queen).
This is a remarkable commentary by national columnist Clay Shirkey, who is a native Roanoker. It uses the local daily as a great example of how the newspaper business is falling in in itself.

"What happened in Roanoke — gradual financial decay punctuated by bouts of firing — is the normal case at papers all over the country, and more is coming," Shirkey writes. Reporters seem blind to the dilemma, he writes: "A friend tells a story of reporters being asked the paid print circulation of their own publication. Their guesses ranged from 150,000 to 300,000; the actual figure was 35,000. If a reporter was that uninformed about a business he was covering, he’d be taken off the story." Or fired.

Conclusion: "The future of the daily newspaper is one of the few certainties in the current landscape: Most of them are going away, in this decade."

It has been clear for some time that papers not yet dead are only a breath away and I've written about it for several years, concentrating on the demise of the local daily here. We've watched circulation and ad revenues decline in dramatic fashion. We've seen layoffs and firings (31 almost immediately when Birkshire-Hathaway bought it from Landmark recently). We've seen the photo department of what used to be a mid-sized daily shrink to three and the newsroom at levels not seen since the late 1940s (my guess).

There is a scramble to bet on the website, but the truth is the web is only a reflection of the product and the product is weak and getting weaker by the day. What percentage of the local daily's paid circulation is younger than 40? My guess would be "not much." How many new subscribers are being signed up by those guys in the lobby at Kroger? Same answer.

Shirkey writes, Sunday inserts "are now the largest single source of print advertising for many papers. Classifieds have imploded, local display ads are down, and black newsroom humor long ago re-labelled the obituary column 'Subscriber Countdown.'"

This is difficult for me to write about, especially on the very day of the 50th anniversary of my start in journalism (see previous post). My heroes for many years were journalists, courageous people of great principle. I can count the journalists I know who are in that category on a single hand these days and it saddens me. I feel like a guy driving a buggy as a car honks its horn and passes.

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