The post-daily world

To understand what’s next for journalism, it helps to put the decline of daily newspapers (like the Bee) in context

Illustration by don button

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

Pressure on the Presses
Last spring, The Wall Street Journal posted this interactive map detailing the woes at the country’s top 50 newspapers. A chart below lists the same information for the top 100.

When I think about the fate of daily newspapers and the future of journalism, I immediately think about the first California Newspaper Publishers Association awards ceremony I attended back in the early 1980s. My paper in Chico had won for Best Weekly Newspaper, so I went down to the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego to accept our award.

I was excited.

I’d been publishing alternative newsweeklies in Santa Barbara and Chico for 11 years at that point and knew dozens of alternative-newspaper publishers. But I hadn’t yet met any daily publishers. I had this idea that they would be like modern Renaissance men—skilled at business, but also well-versed in politics and the arts. Mostly, I thought, they’d be passionate about the role their newspapers played in their communities and in the life of the country.

Boy, was I disappointed. The subject that seemed to rivet publishers’ attention most was golf. And when some of them discussed their newspapers’ operations, things got even worse.

On the whole, they seemed to dislike their employees, especially the union representatives. They described their printing presses as “iron” and the papers as “product.” And the remark I was stunned to hear over and over was something like, “Sure, we support our editorial product—we need to put something between the ads.”

The experience brought home to me how leadership must stay aligned with mission or an industry will fail. Publishers of dailies had begun to prioritize profit, not journalism. That’s because economic and political forces had established ground rules that allowed this to occur. Decisions about how many reporters to hire, whether to open a bureau, how many papers to print, which stories to cover or not—all these were choices that were made within the context of these forces.

This should not have come as a shock to me. After all, it was economic and political influences that had shaped how we had been creating alternative newspapers for decades.

It has recently dawned on me that this context has been mostly missing from the current debate about the future of journalism. As the daily-newspaper industry continues to decline, it’s important to understand that it will be these same forces that will determine how journalism will develop as we move into a post-daily world.

There will still be journalism

The purpose, the very essence of journalism is to take information and opinion and make it more valuable by putting it in context, connecting the dots, telling the stories. The human desire for what we call journalism existed long before the daily newspaper, and the overriding need for what is essential about journalism will continue to exist long after the daily newspaper is gone.

A prime example of this is the transportation industry.

People will always need a way to get from point A to point B, whether the mode of transportation is chariots, horse and buggy, trains, cars or planes. The end of General Motors’ current method of making cars doesn’t eliminate that need to get from point A to point B. Other people and other methods will move us between those two points.

It’s the same with newspapers. Current forces will change how journalism is delivered, but it will continue to be delivered because it’s so valuable.

In his brilliant book, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, Paul Starr writes about the time from the American Revolution to the United States’ entrance into World War II, showing how different economic and political forces—including the U.S. Postal Service—helped shape the development of newspapers, radio, movies and other media, and how those media, in turn, influenced and impacted our economic, political and cultural institutions. Starr theorizes that journalism developed and evolved in response to the different political and economic situations that arose throughout our nation’s history.

SN&R’s Jeff vonKaenel, who has been in the alt-weekly newspaper business for the past 30 years, thinks its time for citizens to face the sad truth that we will soon have to live without daily newspapers. He’s seen here next to an example of his SN&R Newsstand Art Project.

Photo By david jayne

This is still true today. I’ve been a firsthand witness to this since it happened to us in the alternative-newspaper realm.

In 1973, I had just finished four years at UC Santa Barbara, and almost completed a degree in sociology, when I joined a group that was publishing one of the first alternative newspapers in the country. We were organized as a collective and most of us were working for free, or for as little as $100 per month.

Working at this newspaper was wonderful. Reporting was by far the best job I had ever had, despite the lack of pay. The paper was able to reach thousands of people throughout the community; I found it more powerful and effective than demonstrating or organizing for social change.

But we had a problem—lack of money. Our annual revenue of around $60,000 had to support a staff of 14 people, in addition to paying for rent, printing and other newspaper-related costs. Even in 1973 dollars, that wasn’t enough.

After I ran out of savings, I went back home to San Jose and became a Fuller Brush door-to-door salesman for a couple of months to earn enough money so that I could return and work for free at the Santa Barbara News & Review. That may seem insane now, but honestly, how different is it from current-day bloggers working all those crazy hours without financial reward?

At some point, I realized that with its current level of revenue, the paper I loved so much was not going to make it. So I switched to the business side and began to scramble to find out how we could get more revenue, just as bloggers and online news sales managers are doing now. We tried to sell more subscriptions, but that didn’t work. We asked for donations. That worked even less. We became desperate.

I went to car dealers, clothing shops, head shops, bookstores, grocery stores, department stores and restaurants, hunting for somebody, anybody, who would place ads with us. Most businesses wouldn’t even consider it, partly because we wrote controversial stories that were critical of the local police department, bashed President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War and were supportive of the environmental movement. As everybody in advertising knows, given a choice between placing an ad in a controversial medium vs. a mainstream, “safe” medium, a prospective client will choose a safe medium almost every time.

Finally, we got a big break when we started to get record shops and bars to start running ads. We quickly increased our entertainment coverage, listings and music reviews, which led to more music-related ads. This led to more music-oriented readers, which led to more coverage and more ads. While this cycle was happening, we also attracted more general readers. As you can see, the economic forces had changed at least one aspect of our journalism.

And since it worked, we kept doing it.

My point is that the convergence of many circumstances—a large baby boomer population, a relatively easy entry into publishing because of changes in the printing technology and the willingness of the music industry to advertise because they recognized that our papers were attracting young readers—all led to success for a certain kind of weekly newspaper that you now find in most every city across the country.

If any one of these things had been different, another kind of journalism would have developed.

[page] The case of the dailies

The alternative-newspaper industry is very, very small compared to the daily-newspaper business—we have national revenues that make up only about 1 percent of what the dailies bring in. So it’s even more important, in the scheme of things, to acknowledge that daily newspapers were fashioned in response to economic and political forces.

In Starr’s book, he writes that before World War II, most towns in America had competing daily newspapers, which received significant portions of their revenue from circulation. After the war, with the economy booming, manufacturers were suddenly willing to provide cooperative advertising to retailers. The postwar boom in retail sales and advertising meant there was a need for stores to find new places to put all those dollars so as to attract even more sales.

Guess what? Local newspapers had a perfect place to put that advertising. So this created a massive increase in local newspaper revenue. During this period, it was advertising on steroids for daily newspapers. As advertising represented a greater percentage of revenue, circulation started to represent a smaller percentage.

In a 1996 cover story, “<a href="/sacramento/content?oid=44172">Newspapers R.I.P.</a>,” vonKaenel made the prediction that within 10 years, The Sacramento Bee and most other daily newspapers would be out of existence. Back then, few in the newspaper industry gave his prediction the time of day. Now, though late by a few years, the truth about the dailies’ decline is irrefutable.

Soon, since retailers preferred to put their ads into one paper instead of two, advertisers started opting for the paper with the larger circulation. This caused daily newspapers in the post-World War II era to become embroiled in gladiator battles to the death with other dailies. The conventional wisdom was that the first paper that reached a 60 percent circulation in the marketplace won. Once one of the dailies reached that 60 percent, it was only matter of time before the smaller paper went out of business. This was the period when it made economic sense for newspaper publishers to dramatically increase their editorial staffs. And they did.

It was commonly believed by industry leaders that every 1 percent increase in circulation created a 1.3 percent increase in advertising sales. Publishers poured tons of money into editorial, even funding foreign bureaus and wire services, all in hopes that it would increase circulation. It did. In nearly every market in the country, the newspaper wars could only end when there was just one survivor left in the market.

The next period—from 1970 to 2004—became one of monopoly dominance and super profits for daily newspapers. Sixty-eight percent of dailies were independent in 1960. That fell to 30 percent by 1986. By 1992, only 37 cities had competing dailies. And by 2000, most papers were owned by large newspaper companies such as Gannett Company, MediaNews Group and Knight Ridder, who had been willing to pay premium prices to buy up daily newspapers.

Owning a daily newspaper was suddenly like printing money. Into the mid-1990s, daily newspapers delivered anywhere from 20 to 40 percent profit margins. Some changes reduced these margins, but in 2007, newspapers’ profits still averaged more than 19 percent—at least twice the average for the Fortune 500.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before most daily publishers realized that the lack of competition meant they could make even more money by capitalizing on their monopoly-market position, while cutting back the quality of their product. Since they had no competition, they could now slash the editorial content and community contributions, while raising the ad rates. They did both. And they made out like bandits.

For a while.

But then came Craigslist. The advent of online classifieds devoured newspaper’s classified-ad sections—which used to make up something like 30 percent of daily-newspaper revenues—to devastating effect. It wiped out the daily newspaper in its current economic model.

Who has the future advantage?

If it is no longer economically feasible to have a daily newspaper, then shouldn’t the dailies reinvent themselves so they can compete in the online world?

Most people in the newspaper business think the answer is yes. That must be why most dailies have been attempting to somehow right the sinking ship by offsetting decreasing print revenues and steadily increasing online revenues. The idea is that the daily newspaper, over time, can become an online newspaper.

The question is: Do they have an advantage over other competitors if they do this?

Clearly, daily newspapers have certain advantages for going into the online journalism world. They have great branding for being feet-on-the-street news reporters in their communities, of course, and they have many employees with important skills that would be extremely useful for an online news organization.

But they also have many disadvantages. I believe these far outweigh the advantages.

The question isn’t whether a daily newspaper can make the transition from print to the online medium—of course it can. The question, instead, is whether a daily newspaper’s current staffing, branding and infrastructure would operate with an advantage or a disadvantage compared to someone starting an online news organization from scratch.

In a 2006 cover story, “<a href="/sacramento/content?oid=254407">Greedy vultures</a>,” vonKaenel followed up on his earlier forecast. In it, he made the case for how corporate management of daily newspapers (and profit-obsessed choices made by the industry’s executives) made the decline of newspapers inevitable.

One of the key differences has to do with costs. First, establishing an online daily takes far less money than establishing a traditional daily (with its high printing costs and massive distribution costs). Next, the dailies would be at an immediate and severe disadvantage because of overpaid executive teams. For example, last year, McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt earned $4.6 million and Craig Dubow of Gannett earned $7.5 million. Ironically, the first, most important step a daily newspaper could take to become competitive online would be to fire its own management. Add up what the top four highest paid executives at McClatchy make. If you fired those four, you could hire 125 reporters!

Another major difficulty would be staffing. Around 80 percent of a daily’s workforce—employees having to do with printing, distribution services and much of the sales force—would no longer be necessary. Though layoffs and buyouts can cause workers to disappear, many of their costs—including pensions and termination costs—would linger. Next, consider the wasted capital costs—of delivery trucks, printing presses and a large building designed to house a giant newspaper staff. Much of that would be of little worth.

Finally, the supposed advantage of having an experienced workforce may not prove to be much of an advantage after all. Most of a daily’s experienced advertising workforce will have a hard time adjusting to the online world. They certainly have had difficulties so far. And while an experienced editorial staff could be very useful to an online newspaper, in many places, mass layoffs have left the remaining editorial staffers feeling abandoned and angry at their employers. My guess is that a new online newspaper with some money in the bank could open in a community, recruit an ex-daily editorial staff and quickly be in a great position to compete against a monopoly daily newspaper that has moved online.

[page] The matter of culture clash

I’ve spent three decades competing against daily newspapers, so I’ve become a student of them. And while I can’t say the upper executives at the daily newspaper chains I’ve competed against (at McClatchy, Gannett and MediaNews) are on my Christmas card list, I can say that I honestly admire their staffs: the young couple whom I regularly meet at the doorstep to my house when they faithfully bring me The Sacramento Bee and The Wall Street Journal at 5 a.m., the advertising staffs that sell and produce massive amounts of ad copy every day.

I especially admire the daily reporters who, as a whole, are funny, smart, curious, well-read, hardworking and extremely interesting. Most of them care deeply about their mission as journalists and about the stories they produce.

On the other hand, if daily newspaper publishers were asked to choose between 1) a reporter’s in-depth investigation that could help create a better community, but might end up costing a small percentage of advertising revenue, or 2) an article that was mind-numbingly boring but didn’t hurt advertising, unfortunately, I know which option most of the publishers would choose.

They’d choose the story that didn’t cost them advertising.

In classic economic theory, monopoly organizations seek to maintain the status quo for as long as possible. Innovation usually will make changes that diminish the value of the old institution. Why would a monopoly want to innovate when it already owns the market?

This economic love for the status quo is difficult for journalists who are trained to ask questions, look under rocks, peer behind curtains. It sets up a kind of culture clash at dailies, where a group of independent-thinking journalists are housed inside a large conservative corporation that wants to maintain the status quo.

This can create some problems.

In fairness, I do concede that daily publishers are correct in believing that controversial stories hurt advertising sales. They do. I know that they’ve hurt us. We have lost millions of dollars in advertising because of our controversial stories over the years and for taking non-status-quo positions—like opposing the war in Iraq before it was popular or supporting gay rights from the start.

In fact, that’s become something we take pride in as a company.

Ultimately, though, all newspapers operate in an environment that is defined by economics and politics. Consciously or unconsciously, structures get set up that support the status quo, and this has an impact on coverage—what stories get vetted, who gets chosen to be editors, etc. The end result is that the public debate can be shaped by this, often becoming more narrowly focused. It’s safer to make an outrageous statement about Saddam Hussein than to make a mild criticism of a local car dealer.

It’s something newspapers don’t like to admit. It has always mattered who pays the bills.

What will fill the vacuum?

Just like in nature when a disease wipes out a species, the collapse of daily newspapers will leave a gigantic hole in the firmament of journalism as we’ve come to know it. In most American cities, local newspapers are still doing the lion’s share of original reporting. In fact, the way things are now, it’s hard to imagine any city having an effective community debate on virtually any topic without the reporting of its daily newspaper.

National Public Radio provides a model of how nonprofits, corporations and individual citizens can jointly support very good journalism on both a national and local level. Without daily newspapers, there will be a greater need to support such models.

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So what will fill the vacuum left by the imploding daily newspapers?

Capitalism, like nature, does not tolerate vacuums. While I am not certain what will develop, I am positive that the journalism that rushes in to fill that vacuum will operate under different economic and political forces than those which created the daily.

This will result in very different media.

While I had become comfortable with the old configuration—running an alternative newspaper competing with the dailies in Sacramento, Chico and Reno—my new challenge will be different. I’ll have to survive the current economic crisis, while positioning our company to succeed after the collapse and/or implosion of the daily newspaper.

I wish I could tell you what the future is going to be. It would certainly make it easier for me to sleep at night if I knew. But I can only make educated guesses.

First, the Web has clearly been a deal changer and has dramatically changed the economics of transmitting information and stories. However, an effective way to fund journalism online has yet to be found. While this may, and probably can, eventually happen, the immediate future probably will be a hybrid of print and online journalism. This would be good news for us weeklies because, unlike dailies, which have the tremendous expense of delivering newspapers to every neighborhood every day, free weeklies have a much more affordable distribution model.

My guess—my hope—is that the print version of a weekly newspaper, with vastly lower costs than the giant dailies and providing a better advertising vehicle than an online news site, can continue to be a viable economic model. We would continue to meet the needs of our readers through weekly print in hybrid with a regularly updated Web site.

Second, National Public Radio, which has gotten stronger and better over recent years, provides a natural model of how nonprofits, corporations and individual citizens can jointly support very good journalism. I believe that without daily newspapers, there will be more willingness and, certainly, more need, to support such models. Another very successful alternative-news Web site called AlterNet, with 1.4 million unique monthly visitors, supports a growing staff through grants from nonprofit corporations and individual reader contributions. According to the last two Media Audit surveys, SN&R has 330,000 regular readers, for example. For less than $2 per year per reader, SN&R could easily fund its entire annual editorial budget. While we haven’t exactly had to ask our readers for donations, it’s interesting that a relatively small amount of money from readers and nonprofits could go a long way in sustaining a publication.

Third, online media is developing under different economic and political forces than that which originally created the daily newspaper. So it will create a different style of journalism. Though some believe next generation journalism will be “hyperlocal,” my guess is that it will be less locally based. Since local advertisers wanted and demanded that daily newspapers reach as many households as possible in a given community, there was an increased emphasis on local coverage that pleased as many people as possible while offending as few as possible.

But that’s no longer going to be a requirement for media.

In other countries, there are more national newspapers with stronger political viewpoints. That might be what American journalism looks like in the future. Imagine online news sources with immediacy, lower costs and greater impact. They might be aimed at a more targeted demographic that reflects specific interests and political views instead of the one-size-fits-all type of approach used before. Generally, I think journalism in the future will tend to be more cutting-edge, more controversial, than has been media with an economic underpinning based solely on advertising. Compare HBO to network television. On the whole, advertisers do not like controversy. And “interesting” and “controversy” go hand in hand.

Things are going to be different.

And as we prepare for this new, different journalism, we should embrace the fact that we’re in an evolving process and that change comes in context. And we should remember that scene in movies when the king has just kicked the bucket, and the peasants start chanting, “The king is dead! Long live the king!”

How we can have a democracy without daily newspapers?

Let’s get ready to find out.