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Let It Bleed Ink: Newspapers in decline

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

BIRMINGHAM—September 24, 2012, may well have been the last day that the “Birmingham News,” “The Huntsville Times” and “The Press-Register” of Mobile published their Monday newspaper.

Love or hate what was written or the editorial bias, real or perceived, the slow decline of those publication is bad news.

It is bad news, for freedom or the press, freedom of speech and society at large.

This is not to argue if the papers themselves were good or interesting but that there are least days that news is reported and fewer ways of receiving news.

The generalized reason given for the slow death of newspapers is the rise of the Internet. That in itself is not wholly true, many forces have gone into the decline of newsprint, not the least of which have been the self-inflicted wounds.

The Newspaper Association of America has reported that newspaper advertising has fallen by two-thirds from $60 billion in the late-1990s to $20 billion in 2011.

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The soaring newsprint prices, slumping ad sales, the loss of much classified advertising and precipitous drops in circulation have all taken there toll but other industries have seen such cuts and continue to survive without the drastic downsizing seen in the newspaper industry.

A 2011, “Editor & Publisher” report stated, “”The great majority of America’s 1200 daily newspapers are doing pretty well,” said editor Mark Fitzgerald. “Even some of the big papers in the most troubled chains are still churning out profit margins in the high teens. That’s three or four times the margins of Exxon Mobil.”

Yet, those profit margins were not enough, because it is the stock price that matters for most of these publicly held companies. Newspapers traditionally are used to huge profits and not just 10 or 11 percent.

In a recent article by Alan D. Mutter, he points out that, “Of the 11 publicly held newspaper companies, the stock of only one – the broadly diversified News Corp. – gained ground in the last 12 months. [Take News Corps.] stock price out of the mix, the average plunge in newspaper share value last year was 30.1 percent. This compares with a 5.5 percent increase in the Dow Jones average of 30 industrial stocks and the flat performance of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, which gained a meager 0.04 percent after a year of dramatic market swings.”

When a stock looses 30 percent of its value stockholders demand changes.

Even though Billionaire Warren Buffett has gotten a lot of attention for buying Media General and its 63 publications in a $143-million deal, stockholders don’t share his vision of a bright future for the print news media. Of course, Buffett didn’t say he loved print but, he was committed to community journalism.

Advance Publications, owned by the Newhouse family, is not a public company so their concerns for profit would seem to have more flexibility. As of 2009, it was ranked as the 46th largest private company in the United States according to “Forbes.” Yet management decided to scale back the printed editions of Alabama’s three top newspapers to three days a week and impose staff cuts as a way to reduce costs. Under the banner of Al.com the three news organization will shift emphasis to what it says will be expanded online coverage.

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So far, the jury seems to have come in with mixed reviews on the new product.

While there is little doubt that the rise of the Internet has accompanied the decline of newsprint it is not the whole story.

Data accumulated by the Audit Bureau of Circulations has shown that papers with a circulation of 25,000 or more had a 21 percent drop in circulation between 2007 and 2012.

This is in part due to the way people are receiving information through computers, iPads, Kindles, and mobile phones.

However, there is a trust factor that has led to discarded print newspapers.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, many major news organizations have suffered declines in believability since 2002. Pew found that after local TV news, the next five most trusted outlets were “60 Minutes,” “ABC News,” “The Wall Street Journal,” “CNN” and “CBS News,” the study says. “The New York Times,” “Fox News” and “USA Today” were the least trusted, however “Fox News” was most trusted by Republicans.

While 54 precent said they trust the “daily newspaper they knew best,” 43 percent did not. If almost half the people in a given market do not trust a products offering it is not surprising that the products sales would falter.

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In what is a sad turn of irony, local TV—which according to the study is most trusted—gets the majority of their story ideas from newspapers.

In a Red State like Alabama the “Birmingham News” has been seen by many as a left-leaning news outlet. Right or wrong perception does become a force in itself, from their stand against the popular immigration bill to the seemingly liberal bias in editorial and reporting, there has arisen a credibility gap.

Couple that with the diversity of news platforms and a downward trend is inevitable.

The likeability factor can also be followed into the media echo chamber, a place where people go to have their preconceived notions confirmed by news facts. Or put another way, media outlets with a point of view. Right or wrong, “Fox News” is seen as conservative, “MSNBC” is seen as liberal and to varying degrees, “CNN,” all playing to what is a predetermined demographic. This point of view is also seen on the web with sites like the Dailybeast.com being left of center and the Dailycaller.com being right.

Because of the low barrier of entry the Internet as spawned many news sites, some good, some awful, most with a point of view.

The web also offers lots of sports, lifestyle, entertainment and other soft news that was once upon a time the domain of newspapers then magazines.

In the new media world like the world in general news specific has overtaken general. Newspapers, still try to be all things to all people in an age when people want only what they want and want it right now.

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The origins of the newspapers are to be found most notably in point of view pamphlets or tracts paid for by political organizations or wealthy individuals.

The “New York Post” was started by Alexander Hamilton to publish his version of the news at the founding of our nation. Many such papers were circulated in those days. Benjamin Franklin became wealthy and famous with “Poor Richard Almanac.”

Publishers hit on the idea of selling advertising as a profit center aligned with single sales and subscriptions. This flawed business model has continued to this day.

Because newspapers like he “Birmingham News,” “The Huntsville Times” and “The Press-Register” of Mobile were publications based on a business model of advertising, single sales and subscription their prospects were doomed even though they have lasted hundreds of years.

The reason being that war news, government activities and other things were the gateways before the advertisements.

In essence, advertising for a big box store like Target would be paying for coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In general, the advertising had nothing to do with the content of the newspaper, so the reader may or may not have interest in the product being sold.

This has also been true of the Internet but that is changing.

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Time and the readers attention span does not allow for me to go into greater detail, but suffice to say if you have read this far you know the end of the newspaper is near, because you are not reading one right now.

So, a number of causes have led to the shuttering of newspapers and limited print days, not just the internet.

No one is exactly sure when the last newspaper will roll off a big press, but the day is coming. Ink on paper has had an almost six hundred year run that’s pretty good, let it bleed ink but not the blood of good journalism.

Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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