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It Still Bleeds, But It No Longer Leads

President Donald Trump’s nickname notwithstanding, The New York Times is far from failing. The newspaper released its third quarter earnings report [1] last month and by almost every metric it’s good news for the Gray Lady. With more than four million subscribers to its print and digital services (the most in its history) and digital advertising revenue up 17 percent, year over year operating profits rose by 30 percent to $41.4 million for the quarter.

And yet, while our fraught political moment has generated a financial feast for the Times and other prominent newspapers, the death march for the majority of the nation’s newsrooms continues apace. Much (virtual) ink has been spilled on the life and death of American newspapers, but a recent report [2] from the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism provides the most detailed [3] and dire picture thus far.

As the report makes clear, the number of communities with little or no news coverage, a phenomenon media critics have dubbed “news deserts [4],” is rapidly expanding. Half of the nation’s counties have only one newspaper, while almost 200 counties have no newspaper at all.

In fact, of the nation’s nearly 9,000 newspapers operating in 2004, a full 20 percent have either gone out of business or have merged. Hundreds more have scaled back coverage to such a degree that they’ve become what the report calls “ghost” newspapers, which it defines as newsrooms unable to adequately cover their communities due to diminished financial resources.

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The scaled back coverage is best reflected by the number of journalists practicing the trade. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, newspaper staffing has dropped 45 percent since 2004 from 71,640 to 39,210. This represents a sharper decline in employment, both in terms of numbers and percentage, than was experienced by the country’s coal mining industry during the same time period.

The Americans most severely affected are the precise demographic that public interest journalism is ideally intended to serve. “The people with the least access to local news,” the researchers write, “are often the most vulnerable—the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”

For those looking to cast blame, there’s a lot of blood on a lot of hands. Usual suspects include the 2008 global financial crisis and the domination of the digital advertising duopoly of Facebook and Google, which accounts for upward of 75 percent of all digital ad revenue. But the biggest culprit, according to the report, is the consolidation of journalism into the hands of what it calls “new media barons.”

Indeed, the largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two thirds of the nation’s 1,200 dailies. Such consolidation is not without consequences: it places editorial and business decisions about the future of individual papers into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the communities where the papers are located. Given that five of the 10 largest newspaper chains are owned by hedge funds, private equity firms, and other types of investment groups, such decisions no longer reflect long-term sustainability, but instead seek to maximize a short-term return on investment. As New Media Investment Group CEO Mike Reed told Harvard University’s Nieman Lab earlier this year [5], “The thing that we always have to think about and remember is that our first objective is always what’s the best thing for our shareholders.”

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New Media Investment Group is the holding company of GateHouse Media, the largest newspaper chain in the country with over 451 newspapers in 31 states. In its effort to service shareholders, it has shown a willingness to sell or close underperforming papers and aggressively diminish investment in news operations. Two of its innovative cost-cutting strategies include outsourcing news and sales operations to remote locations and establishing regional publishers and editors who are responsible for operating several newspapers at a time. More than 200 of GateHouse’s newspapers are managed in a center in Austin, Texas, far removed from the communities the papers purport to serve.   

Despite these efforts to squeeze out profits, GateHouse’s 3 percent operating margin pales in comparison to the 17 percent operating margin of Digital First Media, the nation’s third largest newspaper chain. A subsidiary of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, it operates 158 papers in 12 states. The higher margins posted by Digital First were the result of aggressive cost reductions at its newspapers, including multiple rounds of layoffs. Although newsroom staffing across the country declined by nearly a quarter between 2012 and 2017, Digital First Media gutted its staff by more than half during the same period. At The Denver Post alone, Digital First Media has reduced the size of the newsroom by nearly two thirds over the past five years.

Politico’s media critic Jack Shafer reflected on this bloodletting in a column titled “This Is How a Newspaper Dies [6],” arguing that readers deserve as much—if not more—of the blame. “It was readers who stopped subscribing,” Shafer writes. “It was readers who stopped using newspaper classifieds. It was readers who stopped reading. Readers are the true villains in this murder mystery.”

With a shortage of “benevolent” billionaires (à la Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos), newspaper-loving Shafer submits to the inevitable: “Go ahead and hate Randall Smith [principal of Alden Global Capital] all you want, but do so with the understanding that, like the mortician, he’s figured out a way to make money off of death.”

This well might be true. A newspaper without a readership won’t be a newspaper for long. But there’s a difference between dying of natural causes and being euthanized. Although the industry has long had one foot in the grave, hastening its death with a “spasm of profits,” as Shafer puts it, is an act worthy of contempt.

Daniel Kishi is associate editor of The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @DanielMKishi [7]

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "It Still Bleeds, But It No Longer Leads"

#1 Comment By Asmilwho On December 3, 2018 @ 1:52 am

Blaming readers for the decline of the newspaper industry is like blaming horse riders for the death of the horse buggy industry.

It’s simply that a better technology came along

#2 Comment By Callinectes sapidus On December 3, 2018 @ 7:20 am

The fact that the NY Times is flourishing financially suggests that its customers can disregard their instincts that, under normal circumstances, lead them away from what is untrue and radical, but toward what is focused on truth and more traditional.

Such success is obviously a result of the overwhelming faithfulness of liberal-progressive subscribers, who are most inclined to accept the slant and the cachet associated with the “Gray Lady”.

#3 Comment By Anon On December 3, 2018 @ 9:49 am

The days when a newspaper owner could marry a chorus girl, maintain a mistress on the side and live in a castle are probably gone, like the Old South. But you can read about him on Wikipedia.

#4 Comment By Kent On December 3, 2018 @ 10:07 am

Great article Mr. Kishi. This is why I come to TAC. So why isn’t this quality of writing available in my local newspaper?

I stopped subscribing to my local paper about 6 years ago. It is a subsidiary of USA Today. They made the mistake of increasing prices by about 40% in one shot which caused me to spend a moment and look at what I was getting for my money.

They basically had a few of USA Today’s articles on the front page. Then came a few articles of note about local goings on. But instead of insightful articles about why the County’s budget was going up or down, it was mostly what local CEO showed up at a charity fund-raiser. With pictures! And all of this surrounded by gobs of advertising. Sometimes they had a couple of pages with nothing but advertising.

So don’t expect people to pay for low-value information and advertising. But how do you get our media moguls to understand that people want thoughtful discussions of important issues?

#5 Comment By po On December 3, 2018 @ 10:07 am

Newspapers are NEGATIVE news, sucking information out of a reader’s brain and dispacing it with poison. So a community with no newspaper has the MOST access to local news, not the LEAST.

Information spreads via conversation, telephone, and social media. Distributed information remains VALID when there’s no newspaper to displace and parasitize it.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

“So a community with no newspaper has the MOST access to local news, not the LEAST.”

No, what happens is the coverage of things far away that no one can do anything about displace local information.

Then, elected officials, local government managers and inspectors are able to engage in bribery, sweetheart contracts and other conduct without the electors knowing. Corporations take over government functions, placing even elected control problematic. When someone finds out, there is no media to take it to, so corruption expands fearlessly.

That’s what it’s like in Springfield, Oregon.

#7 Comment By Anon On December 3, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

Fran Macadam: The bad behavior was going on long before newspapers fell on hard times. It was (and is) called pay to play. The Citizens United decision in 2010 just made it easier for the big players with lots of money to get what they wanted from the Federal government.

#8 Comment By Roger Chylla On December 3, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

Jack Shafer is mostly correct. How many of the people wringing their hands over this outcome have purchased a subscription to their local newspaper within the last years of its viability?

#9 Comment By Stephen J. On December 3, 2018 @ 5:53 pm

I quit buying “newspapers” over 25 years ago. i believe most of them have become propaganda pushers.

“Newspapers”

Newspapers are seeing there circulation declining. Various reasons are given for this. The rise of the Internet and young people not reading the papers are but two explanations. Another reason could be the assault on the traditional family by most of the conglomerate media in Canada. If one takes the time to read and observe the monopoly media, they all – except for a few journalists – seem to propagandize with consistency that abortion, so-called same-sex marriage, and euthanasia are issues that deserve respectability. Yet every one of these issues is detrimental to society. Abortion kills the child in the womb. So called “same-sex marriage” cannot produce children and is an invention of words, and euthanasia is a polite word for killing those perceived to be a burden on society. Nihilism rules and is declared as “rights.”

Why would any responsible parent or person opposed to these aberrations continue to buy propaganda disguised as news? By buying these newspapers, people are buying into the media agenda and are allowing themselves to be punished, abused and ridiculed with their own money. They are, in fact, subsidizing attacks on their belief systems. There is an old saying: “Money talks.” But money can also walk. Just imagine if those in Canada who are of religious persuasion and those who are not of religious persuasion but believe certain issues can never be respectable decided to boycott or cancel their subscriptions to the purveyors of propaganda. This could be called: Money walking. Then the word weasels would be sent a message to take their stories elsewhere.

Stories like two men who are “married” to each other are given saturation coverage in the conglomerates newspapers and also on its TV “news” and we are solemnly told that one of the men is the “wife” of the other!! These two men are protesting something called the lack of “queer culture” in the schools. I’m sure that must worry all the parents out there that their kids are deprived of this “knowledge.” A newspaper editorialized that the two men should be “commended” for pushing “queer issues.” Meanwhile another “news” headline tells us a baby whale has died and it is all very “sad.” A few miles further away from where the baby whale died is the local abortion clinic, thousands of babies over the years are killed there by saline injection or cut to pieces in their mothers’ wombs, but these babies are not considered as newsworthy as a baby whale. The dead innocent, abused and savaged bodies of these human babies are neither shown or reported in the media. This atrocity is called “choice” in the parlance of “investigative” journalism….
[read more at link below]
[8]
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See also: “The Word Soldiers”
[9]
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And:
“Are The Corporate Media Propaganda Pushers For The War Criminals”?
[10]

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

“The bad behavior was going on long before newspapers fell on hard times. It was (and is) called pay to play. The Citizens United decision in 2010 just made it easier for the big players with lots of money to get what they wanted from the Federal government.”

So who’s covering it now, locally?

#11 Comment By Jameson Campaigne On December 4, 2018 @ 2:43 am

>Shafer writes. “It was readers who stopped using newspaper classifieds. It was readers who stopped reading. Readers are the true villains in this murder mystery.”<

BALONEY. It was the CONTENT (or lack of it) — too highbrow/abstract, too far left, the elimination of small, 2" niche stories of intense interest to little segments of the readership — of the papers which caused readers to depart. The inheritance tax forced the sale of many papers to chains; journalism schools produced (usually left-of-center) "professionals" writing for themselves, not for the readers, in what once was a trade — producing writing understood by a mass audience with 8th grade intellects, the median in the USA — not a profession.

#12 Comment By bkh On December 4, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

The local newspaper deserves to die. The land on which the building sits would make a nice downtown parking lot. Much better technology exists for news. And as long as Amazon and GrubHub are around, I can shop and eat from home. No advertisements or sale flyers needed. Like other zombie businesses newspapers are now obsolete. They had a good run.

#13 Comment By George Atkins On December 4, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

Stephen J’s attempt to create a value-based rationale for newspaper decline simply points out that some minds are closed to different ideas. People who look to newspapers only to reinforce their beliefs will stop reading when they find out they all don’t attend the same church.

Kishi is mostly correct in noting that this is a multi-front assault. But is more: It is a transformation. Aside from a few major papers, many so-called local news articles look more like press releases. Lack of personnel and time may have something to do with that. Newspapers often outsource their home delivery service to other companies that don’t seem to care if you actually get a paper. That leads to canceled subscriptions (as happened to me).

The Internet has drawn off a lot of readers, and younger generations grow up in an environment of quick-release, herky-jerky videos, quick-cut imagery, online messaging, and other short-term formats. Thus, most of them likely don’t even read the paper, if there is one available. Many books published today are “dumbed down” with fewer words per page, more simplistic vocabulary, and simpler syntax. As Dylan sings, “things have changed” and we’re all just too busy to find the time to read anything that takes more than 10 minutes.

We’re becoming a nation of slogan-speakers and headline scanners. Questions are dangerous and details might become triggers. Information is being replaced by affirmation. For those of us who care, how do we fight back? To paraphrase the swamp philosopher Pogo, “we have met the enemy, and it is us.”

#14 Comment By Josep On December 5, 2018 @ 4:30 am

@bkh
Well, sure, but for those of us who don’t want to rely on an internet connection all the time, what’s your suggestion?

#15 Comment By Hibernian On December 5, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

This article is non sequitur city. It starts with the healthy profit margins of the NYT adduced as proof that newspapers are profitable. Then it bewails the fact that small towns can’t support them.

#16 Comment By Michael Lavin On December 5, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

While technology has certainly accelerated the decline of the traditional newspaper, television has indisputably, albeit indirectly, contributed to this phenomenon.

Almost every newscast, whether it be NBCCBSABCCNNFOX or a local affiliate, leads with news about politics in Washington. It has helped to cultivate a mindset amongst citizens that the political, cultural, and economic epicenter of American life resides there.

My local newspaper serves two towns. It covers not only meetings of local government, but also scholastic and athletic events of high school teams, a community calendar, feature stories on residents (both here and serving abroad), restaurant highlights, a history section.

A local election prior to the midterms had twenty questions on the ballot, ranging from amending a zoning ordinance to permit a gas station to funds for public restrooms at the recently developed park/hiking trail. These issues impact people here more directly than Trump’s most recent tweet or talking points delivered to Republican and Democrat constituencies.

I regret not having completed journalism academically as I had intended in the late 1990’s. I recall writing an article for the school newspaper in opposition to online courses. If only I had known what that would portend.

#17 Comment By Jim On December 7, 2018 @ 4:37 am

Few independent news sources has resulted in a binary view of the world akin to a sporting event. In this case the sport is politics; the teams are left and right usually perceived as home and away. I avoid Facebook and Google, leaving my opinion equivalent to a spoiled ballot. I have enough faith in people – once they are pushed off the couch – to see this as the reboot of a democracy driven off track by omnipresent and omnipotent megamedia.

#18 Comment By Joe On December 9, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

Jameson Campaigne: Yes, the inheritance tax is a factor. So was loosening media ownership rules. So was putting computers in classrooms, so children became used to that tool for gathering information. Print giants saw digital as the enemy and fought them until it was too late and they were too broke to form an alliance to their advantage. And yes, slash and burn budgets by entities that didn’t care a whit about the Fourth Estate meant fewer reporters, photographers, and sub-editors to provide and guide community news to the final product. It’s how it is now. Newspapers will never go away but become shadows of their former selves to reside in museums.

#19 Comment By Mike Houlding On December 12, 2018 @ 9:10 pm

Advocacy journalism has had a huge part to play in the death of the printed news media. Journalists who perpetually push the green wheelbarrow, or who supress news not to their liking are fulfilling the words of A S J Tessimond in 1938:
“The ancient custom of deception;
A Press that seldom stoops to lies –
Merely suppresses truth and twists it,
Blandly corrupt and slyly wise…”