I recall vividly, some 15 years ago, sitting in a conference room at the Newark Star Ledger, a prominent east coast newspaper, and hearing one of their editors tell a bunch of us "future journalists" that newspapers and magazines would cease to exist in as little as 10 to 15 years. It was 1993, I was the Editor-in-Chief of my high school newspaper, and I hadn't heard of the Internet yet. Nobody had. But yet, it was sensed.
The editor who spoke to us that day may have been a bit overly pessimistic in his prediction, but here we are, 15 years later, and the Tribune Company (owner of the major papers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore) just filed for bankruptcy. They cite drop in readership and advertising as the primary factors for their lack of success. Naturally, the Internet is the root cause of this.
Closer to home, The Seattle Times, a newspaper I have come to admire in the 6+ years I've lived in Washington, is having hard times of its own. We subscribed to the daily paper the week we moved into the duplex we used to rent in Bellevue and I have enjoyed reading the paper every morning since, even if sometimes I only have time for the Sports section. The paper isn't what it was five years ago and I'm sure long-time readers would tell me how unrecognizable it was to them even back then.
It started earlier this year (or was it last?) when the paper made the decision to include more syndicated columnists and to "share" stories from newspapers around the country. I understand the practicality of this. I felt sorry for the journalists who were undoubtedly being laid off, but it makes sense to not re-invent the wheel on ever article. But although I understood the decision, I didn't expect to see stories from outside the Times staff on the front page, and certainly not articles not by Reuters or the AP. As anyone who has ever travelled to the Pacific Northwest knows -- and the Pemco Insurance commercials like to revel in -- people see things a bit differently here. Sure, some stories might be national or global in scope, but the reason we turn to the Seattle Times, or any regional paper for that matter, is to hear the news from someone who sees it through the same lens. Yes, you might call it bias, the f-bomb of journalism, but it's there, even if only through shared-experiences. Reading articles by editors from the New York Times or the Miami Herald just isn't the same. We turn not to CNN or MSNBC, but to the Times for precisely that reason, to get a local's take. At least we used to.
The next big change to the Seattle Times was to the Travel section, or what used to be the Travel section. Now it's the NWTraveler section, or some such thing. The focus shifted a bit more towards close-to-home trips (probably not a bad idea given the economy), but more importantly it shrunk by a couple pages and what is still there is largely advertisements and large photos.
Earlier this fall, the Business section was axed and given a few pages at the end of the front-page section. Sports, mercifully, is still in-tact.
But what might have been the last straw came yesterday. Gone is the Local section. Not entirely, heaven-no. Where else would you put all of those mushy feel-good stories about pets and children? No, they're still there, but the Opinion pages were moved (you guessed it, to the ever-crowded front-page section) and the newly dubbed NWMonday, NWTuesday, etc., etc., section is all about classifieds, comics, and lifestyle fluff pieces. Yes, they do give half-a-page to news from "Around the Sound" but it's certainly not what it was last week. Most of what remains, based on yesterday's and today's examples, feature giant graphics and pictures and very little text. It's like the USA Today. Or Highlights.
Yes, I went there.
Kristin has what is called a "capstone" project for her E-MBA program. It's a year-long project that requires her to spearhead something pretty big at her company. For this project, she has a peer-group with two other students, both of whom are involved in their own capstone projects. One of the women in Kristin's group works for the Seattle Times and, from what I gather, is centering her project around trying to make the paper profitable while also trying to maintain what remains of its once-proud journalistic pedigree. Knowing I'm a daily reader, the woman asked Kristin not to tell me about this week's changes and to report back with my reaction.
My initial reaction wasn't fit for print, that's for sure.
To be perfectly blunt about it, the changes are dumb. The Seattle Times has lost roughly 50% of its subscriber base in the past year or two and advertising is plummeting. Advertisers don't believe that people want to read real news and don't like to advertise in the front-page section nor the business section. They want to advertise near the travel section, movie listings, and next to the photos of kids and bunnies. But the paper can't win. The people that actually give a damn about those fluff pieces and human interest stories can skim a year's worth of them online during their lunch break. Newspapers can't compete in the oddball/sentimental news category with the Internet. Point, set, match. It's over. Promoting those sections of the paper might draw more money in advertising, but it's certainly not going to bring back any readers. Those people are gone.
But what newspapers can do, and need to do for the goodness of the community, is report. Sure, it might be the "boring" section of the paper, but the front-page section and a strong local section, are paramount to retaining readers. I get it, advertisers don't want to advertise there, fine, but if you shortchange these sections, then you're going to kill off the single-best remaining reason to subscribe. And guess what, companies won't advertise if there aren't any subscribers.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
The Wall Street Journal may cater to a rather niche market, but last I checked they do get advertisements without running giant fluff pieces. They do it by doing serious news, and by doing it well (albeit with a hefty conservative bias). My point is, if the paper has already lost half of its subscriber base, being more like the Internet to appease advertisers isn't going to keep the subscribers you do have. The herd has been culled, the fittest remain. And those people -- or me at least -- want to read serious articles about real news by Seattle reporters.
If God wanted us to read stories about kids and pets and washed-up celebrity dancing, he wouldn't have invented YouTube.