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Media expert tracks the expiration date of newspapers

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Media expert tracks the expiration date of newspapers

Margaret Looney | September 15, 2011

Since 2007, veteran technology journalist Paul Gillin has been tracking the demise of newspapers and highlighting the ones that thrive on a website called Newspaper Death Watch.

In just the last month, Gillin's site reported on the demise of the Bay Area News Group, which consolidated 11 newspapers into two surviving publications, costing about 120 people their jobs. These are just a few casualties among many as the print industry learns to adapt in the digital age.

IJNet spoke with Gillin about the current woes of print publications, evolving business models and whether the lives of newspapers are at stake.

IJNet: What kind of newspapers have been failing?

Paul Gillin: Regional newspapers, especially those with less than daily frequency, have been taking the hardest hit. Hundreds of weeklies have failed over the last three years; no one to my knowledge has an accurate count.

Small local papers are more vulnerable to competition from bloggers and so-called citizen journalists, many of whom operate online at a tiny fraction of the cost of print publishing.

Specialized publications have also been hit hard because of the Internet's superior timeliness and low cost structure. Major metropolitan dailies have proved the most resilient, but even they are seeing their advertising business slide at 5% to 10% annually. It can't continue forever.

IJNet: According to the latest newspaper “deaths,” what trends have you noticed?

PG: The year 2009 was a watershed for the industry. In that year, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News, both of which were more than 100 years old, folded with sickening speed... This was a wake-up call for the entire industry.

Publishers realized that the business declines they had been seeing for the past three years were permanent and they needed to make radical adjustments in their cost structure. Many have since laid off 40% or more of their staffs, reduced frequency, tightened ad/edit ratios and raised subscription prices for the dwindling number of loyal subscribers they have left.

Many are also now charging for access to their websites, a strategy of dubious wisdom. In short, newspapers are learning to live within their means, but this has required dramatic reductions in the quantity and quality of service they provide.

IJNet: How have newspapers changed their models and were these cases successful?

PG: The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press created an innovative experiment in 2008 that reduced frequency and cut home delivery while increasing emphasis on online publishing... The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was reborn as an online-only publication with a much smaller staff. From what I've read, the venture is struggling but achieving stability.

The two daily papers that have bridged the transition to hybrid print/online models the best are The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times... Their affluent professional readership relies upon them for information that is vital to their work in financial markets. In other words, their circulation is much less cost sensitive than that of metropolitan dailies.

IJNet: What will be journalism’s saving grace?

PG: I'm encouraged by the work going on at Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism venture that is reportedly stable and has won two Pulitzer prizes. California Watch is another venture that has turned some heads with a joint funding model that permits a small but dedicated staff of investigative journalists to do their best work. I'm also quite impressed with the work of Sacramento Press, which is trying to reinvent the business model that supports journalism.

That said, I have no illusions. We may never have the kind of robust investigative journalism of the last 30 years, when fat advertising contracts permitted news organizations the luxury of supporting teams of journalists whose work generated no revenue.

I am optimistic that good journalists will find a way to practice their craft, but they will be more challenged to do so. Public funding and philanthropic efforts have some potential, but their resources are small. A lot of people are trying to figure out a solution to the problems facing journalism right now, and I'm optimistic that a lot of creativity is being brought to the process.

Gillin is also an author, speaker and online media consultant. You can contact him at paulATgillin.com or learn more here.

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