April 2, 2014 Last Updated 9:30 am

Newspapering: Seeking simple solutions to a complex problem

The news, that will likely become official some time today, that Digital First Media will be shuttering its newsroom project Thunderdome, with the inevitable loss of jobs, has many journalists scrambling. Many of them had a lot riding on DFM, to the point where it began to feel more like a cult following than a business.

As a severe critic of DFM, it would be easy to pile on, but one must realize that when it comes to building a profitable newspaper business in the modern era, we are all in this together – and that is what makes many journalists so sad.

When I broke into the newspaper business at Hearst in Los Angeles, the newspaper execs at the Herald Examiner liked to compare the newspaper business to the film business, if only to make things seem more glamorous. Their points was that no film could be made without the camera crew, the lighting and make-up pros, etc. It wasn’t all about the movie stars. But there are many journalists today who insist it is, indeed, all about the stars, or at least the newsroom. It isn’t, has never been, and will never be. Sorry.

Journalist-first media ventures have recently been launched that seem to give credence to the position that one can create a news organization built around journalists and succeed. Of course, these new ventures are well-funded start-ups that are not currently generating profits, but simply existing. Existing is great, especially when the alternative is so awful. But it is not a business model, it is a start-up in search of a business model.

As TNM has argued for years, the troubles with newspapers began when new competitors entered the market and newspapers failed to react. This predates the rise of Internet publishing and can be seen in the growth of marriage mail, shoppers, traders and other publications. These competitors started to eat away at classified and local advertising. I would argue that web advertising, which is mostly national, has had less of an impact on newspapers than the loss of classified and retail. If the local car dealership feels buying a full page ad in the Opening Day special section no longer seems like a good investment, a newspaper has the core of its reason for being: local content.

Yes, advertising is content, always has been. Even back in the “good old days” of the eighties, publishes would remind their editors that their reader surveys often pointed out that a majority of readers pointed to the classifieds, inserts and other advertising as one of the most important reasons for subscribing to the newspaper. Campaigns by the NAA often stated that newspapers were good investments by readers – they got more discounts and other offers in their papers than what they paid for subscribing. Reading a newspaper was like getting free money.

One can understand why one would be saddened by the news of more newsroom layoffs. But journalists, rather than trying to rid themselves of the ad guys, should instead be teaming up with them to create new products that will attract both readers and advertisers. Print advertising is going away for many reasons, the biggest of which is that it is overpriced and under delivers. But there is value in both the print newspaper and the online newspaper. There is value in the mobile app and tablet edition. All of that is newspapering today. To pretend that a newspaper can concentrate only on the newsroom, while outsourcing its app development, not redesigning and modernizing its website, is madness. And it is just bad newspaper management.

But it might start to make sense when one realizes that many newspapers are owned by private equity firms, not investors. A strategy that consolidates and centralizes the newsroom, yet is said to be digital-first, is attractive: it cut costs and may increase the value of the company for future sale. But let’s not pretend it actually has anything to do with digital media and the future of the newspaper.

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