The four newspapers — all owned by the Newhouse chain — are going to quit printing every day. Instead, they’re just going to print on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The papers include the New Orleans Times-Picayue, The Birmingham News, The Huntsville (Ala.) Times and the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register. The companies claim they’re going to have better coverage on the days they still print and they’re going to have improved online coverage as well.
Until I see the new products, I’ll withhold judgment about whether they can make it or not. I’ll just say that I suspect we’re going to start seeing similar “crazy” experiments from papers across the country.
I’m a former newspaper editor and publisher, so you’d think I would feel nostalgia to see things headed this direction, but I don’t. I got out of the business 20 years ago, and I haven’t bought a paper copy in years and years.
After I left my last newspaper job, I did serious planning about how to buy and run newspapers in new and profitable ways. I even tried to buy the second daily paper that was still publishing in Birmingham at the time, because I thought I could make it profitable. One of the plans I considered was cutting publication back to once a week and make that edition magazine-style, continuing to publish breaking news online in the meantime. As I look at what the Newhouse papers are doing, it sounds vaguely similar to my plans from 15 years ago, although they’re not going as far as I intended to go.
The biggest concern I have is that newspapers have traditionally done a deeper job of covering news than TV stations have on a local level. If newspapers are forced to give up their traditional role of being the entities covering the boring little meetings where political decisions get made on a local level, nobody else is going to. (Check on the morning meetings at TV news operations. They’re usually using that day’s local newspaper to see what’s going on that they should be covering.)
When I was a young reporter still in college, I sat through more boring meetings of city councils and similar bodies than I care to remember. We all hated those meetings, because little of note happened in most meetings. But we still reported what the governments were doing with our readers’ money — spending it for a new tractor for the parks department or paying more money for new furniture at City Hall or just arguing over what color to paint the new fire truck. It was boring to us, but I came to realize that many readers counted on us to be their eyes and ears. Some of those stories were important to our readers.
I honestly can’t see who’s going to take the place of what we used to do. Television and radio don’t have the time (or expertise) to do it. Who else is there? The only possibility I can see is for local bloggers to fill the gap and provide that coverage, but the coverage from so-called citizen-journalists tends to be very uneven. Much of the writing is bad and unfair. Covering news might look easy, but it’s something that requires training and a dedication to accuracy and fairness. Most people aren’t prepared for it, and they let their emotions get in the way of fairness.
For better or worse, though, the economics of news is forcing us into this world. Right now, some papers are going to the three-day printing schedule. After that, it might be just once a week. How long until they sell the presses — if they can find anyone to buy them? Unfortunately, the restructuring the industry is going through is going to put a lot of people out of work.
The people who are going to be the angriest, of course, are the 70-year-olds who will be calling to complain — on their black Western Electric corded rotary-dial landline telephones, of course. Change is very difficult for some people to accept.