If someone told you they were reading a story about newspapers, it’d be a safe bet the piece that struck their fancy was about declining circulation and newspapers kicking the bucket. I can’t recall a story about newspaper trends that wasn’t about their demise. I’m guilty of it myself [Thin Line: “ Circulation Consternation,” Nov. 22-28, 2007], but it’s time to stop.
Are newspapers less profitable now than they were 10 years ago? Yes. Are they unprofitable? No. In fact, in an article published last week, John Morton of the American Journalism Review points out that most non-media industries would be thrilled with last year’s 17 percent profit margin posted by the average publicly owned newspaper.
Much has been made of the need to “save” newspapers, either through websites, blogs or massive layoffs. I may look like a shortsighted optimist when the last newspaper is shut down in the next five years, but it seems to me that print media is not in need of a rescue.
Profits will probably continue to decline in the near future, and that’s bad news for journalists who are on the chopping block of profit-hungry publishers. But should they be the ones to bear the burden of the fight to keep newspapers in the black? Shouldn’t it be stockholders, and not employees, who are left feeling disappointed about the shrinking number of readers?
Too often it seems papers large and small attempt to solve the problem of declining profits by firing staff. As both Morton and San Francisco Gate columnist Jon Carrol explain, counting on a paper to deliver the same quality of writing and reporting as it did when it had more employees is unreasonable. Carrol asserts that the result of this unachievable demand are papers with lower page counts and readers with waning interest in perusing the thinner, less-informative rags.
So what can we do to stem the tide of this admittedly disturbing downward trend in newspapers? A little faith wouldn’t hurt. There is still a sizable contingent of humanity—even those who have grown up with the Internet—that wants more than what your average blog or website can offer. As Carrol makes clear, many of the news and information sites that newspaper moguls fear merely consist of collections of newspaper articles with a blogger’s opinion thrown in at the bottom.
If newspapers are doomed, which Carrol and Morton suggest is not the case, it would give the industry more honor to go down fighting by providing the same level of in-depth coverage and detailed reporting that has always been the medium’s strong point. On the other hand, removing staff and cutting pages is a tactic that could seal newspapers’ fate.