Printed_Blog

Back in January, we told you about The Printed Blog, a venture by serial entrepeneur Josh Karp that sought to flip the online publishing model by delivering blogs in print. The idea was to take the best entries by local bloggers and rush them into print for consumption by busy commuters, whom advertisers would want to reach. “If his idea reaches its full potential, he’ll have hyper-local twice-daily editions in thousands of communities around the US,” we wrote. “Chicago alone could support 50 localized Printed Blogs.”

Well, it turns out Chicago could barely support even one Printed Blog for more than a few issues. Josh Karp shut his doors last week, having poured more than $100,000 of his own money into a venture that barely got off the ground. The Printed Blog published 16 issues in seven regions and it was a pretty interesting read. Its slogan – “Like the Internet, only flammable” – betrayed its playful nature and the website is the essence of Web 2.0 shareability. The venture was a victim of a harsh economy, in part, but also the reality that people apparently don’t want to read 13-hour-old blog entries about the White Sox in print, as the Christian Science Monitor account points out. It was a long shot that drew skepticism from the start, but it generated huge publicity for Karp, who we hope will quickly find a more successful outlet for his ample creativity.

Karp posted several closing entries on his blog, including this one about the lessons he learned from the venture. Among the half-dozen he lists are this one: “Instead of focusing on one thing – revenue – on a small enough scale to prove our model, I decided to try and publish the paper in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles… I got carried away, and we spread ourselves too thin too fast.” We’re going to be seeing a lot of entrepreneurs try to fill the void left by dying newspapers in the coming years and they would do well to read Karp’s advice. Or even bring him on as a publisher.

The Flap Over Free

freecoverWe don’t know if you’ve followed Wired editor Chris Anderson’s latest book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, but the premise is worthy of attention from publishers. Anderson’s premise is that the Internet has created a new competitive dynamic that is relentlessly forcing the price of all things digital – and some things physical – toward zero.

Software that once commanded six-figure license fees is now free.  The entertainment industry has all but abandoned efforts to copy-protect music. Artists now give away music and make money on concerts.

Anderson further argues that other businesses may be pulled into the low-cost business model orbit. T-shirts are basically free, but the cost of a Major League Baseball logo is $30. Casinos give away flights and hotel rooms and make it back on gambling. Ryan Air has staged promotions in which its flights are given away for free while revenue is derived from value-added services like luxury meals or gambling.

This has big implications not just for publishers but for anyone whose value is predicated upon delivering content. Anderson’s premise is controversial and scary to many people. Others simply don’t buy it, including Malcolm Gladwell, who penned a well-argued review in The New Yorker last week. Gladwell points out that Anderson’s argument ignores the value – and cost- of the distribution network. He notes that YouTube makes most of its money from advertising sold against professional programming that it buys from entertainment companies. Thus, the company’s supposedly free content model is really underwritten by real cash money.

Anderson fires back with a respectful rejoinder, telling the story of GeekDad, a blog he started a few years ago that is now run by a largely volunteer workforce. These writers do a heckuva job delivering a product that would have formerly required an expensive publishing infrastructure, and they do it for personal fulfillment, Anderson says. He suggests that this is where the news model is going: “I can imagine far more subjects that are better handled by well-coordinated amateurs than those that can support professional journalists. My business card says ‘Editor in Chief’, but if one of my children follows in my footsteps, I suspect their business card will say ‘Community Manager.’ Both can be good careers.”

True to form, Anderson is giving away digital copies of Free (you can read the whole thing here) but charging for the book. Publicity will no doubt help sustain his five-digit speaking fee. That’s further support for the book’s premise. It isn’t helping his magazine, though, which is among the worst-performing print magazines of 2009. Free can apparently only get you so far.

Miscellany

The Cincinnati Enquirer appears to be shouldering more than its share in the latest round of Gannett Co. layoffs. The paper has laid off 101 people out of a total staff estimated at between 800 and 920. It has also laid off the entire staff of CinWeekly,  companion publication aimed at young readers. Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press is escaping the axe entirely, but that’s because it and its JOA partner the Detroit News have already cut 17% of their combined workforces since December.


More than half of business communicators surveyed by Ragan Communications think Twitter is a fad that will crest and decline as people run out of interesting things to say. The 28% of respondents who have a microblogging policy in place credit it with improving employee engagement, helping customer service, building reputation and boosting website traffic. Another 40% have no microblogging plan in place. EMarketer remarks on Twitter mania, noting that when people start attributing world-changing characteristics to a new technology, it’s time to start worrying.

The New York Times Co. has extended until late this month the deadine for bids on the Boston Globe. The move is intended to give prospective bidders (three at the moment) time to see if advertising revenue has leveled off and whether the Newspaper Guild approves a tentative contract containing $20 million in concessions. Meanwhile, a lively discussion is going on within the Guild ranks over whether to approve the proposed deal.

A federal judge has cleared the way for Journal Register Co. to emerge from bankruptcy with 90% of the company in the hands of its debtors. The company’s reorganization plan had been held up pending resolution of a dispute over a $1.3 million “shutdown” bonus, which will pay some senior managers to lay off staff and shut down publications. Opponents argued that the bonuses are excessive and unwarranted, but Judge Allan L. Gropper ruled that the fact that the fact that the plan was approved by secured lenders and the company’s creditors committee justified its validity. Under the reorganization plan, JRC gives up 90% of the company in exchange for $225 million from lenders.

And Finally…

gazetaThe comedy team of Bob & Ray once had a skit about an idea called edible food packaging. It turns out the notion may not have been so far-fetched, as publishers are trying every possible idea to make their print products palatable. In Moscow, the the GazetaPacket is delivering news, crosswords, recipes and advertising on printed paper bags. It’s been running since last August. Editors Weblog tell of other ideas, like Bill Shein’s suggestions for edible paper, martini-flavored ink and naked women on the cover. That last one’s been tried and apparently doesn’t work, but you know what they say about if at first you don’t succeed…

globe_deadline

Management at the Boston Globe finally wore down union leadership last night and won tentative agreement on a revised contract that is substantially similar to the one the union rejected a little over two weeks ago.  The new contract slightly reduces the pay cut management had originally sought, although it includes additional benefit reductions.  More importantly, the Globe and its parent New York Times Co. emerged victorious on the biggest issue: the right to end lifetime job guarantees for 170 employees.

Union members still have to ratify the proposed contract in a vote set for July 20, but approval seems likely now that union leadership has endorsed the deal.  The end of the last bitter labor dispute between Globe management and employees also positions the paper for sale to one or more of several interested suitors, which include investor and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca,; Partners HealthCare chairman Jack Connors and former Globe executive Stephen Taylor.

Schedule Cutbacks Have Unforeseen Effects

More than 100 daily newspapers in 32 states have cut at least one daily edition in an effort to reduce costs and avoid layoffs.  But if you think that changing frequency is a matter of just shuttling around the work schedule, read this excellent piece in Editor & Publisher on the ripple effects of becoming somewhat-less-than-daily. Joe Strupp talked to editors around the country and found that cutting as little as one day’s worth of print news can force significant changes in the way a newspaper approaches its mission. “We try to cover Saturday through Monday on Tuesday. But we don’t staff Sunday night so we can staff more the rest of the week. There is more breaking news that goes up on Monday,” says Dan Liggett of the Wilmington (Ohio) News Journal in a quote that typifies the kind of calendar soup that these editors must contend with.

Some papers have had to add pages on days following gaps in the production schedule because print diehards still want local news and won’t go online for it.  Big news stories tend to lose momentum when they occur just before a break in the production schedule.  This forces editors to alter subsequent coverage to keep reader interest from waning. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, which are the most prominent dailies to cut back on print, have moved more enterprise reporting stories into the Thursday, Friday and Sunday editions that land on subscribers’ doorsteps.

In communities with active high school sports schedules, the loss of a Saturday edition has prompted website editors to boost the priority of local sports in Saturday online coverage and to add Sunday pages to handle the demand. Other publishers have found that weekly columns and features that appeared on certain days have had to be moved to other days because readers didn’t want to give them up.

The good news is that “editors are becoming more convinced that print-devoted readers will stick around even when fewer editions are available and stories get published days after a news event,”  Strupp concludes.

R.I.P. Ann Arbor News

Ann_Arbor_News_BuildingThe Ann Arbor News, which announced plans in March to scale back from daily to twice weekly frequency, is apparently going a little further than that.  Writing on Poynter.org, Rick Edmonds reports that the 174-year-old daily is effectively shutting down.  The “unspecified number of layoffs” the paper announced in March is in fact the entire staff, Edmonds says. The headquarters building (right) will be sold and an entirely new online operation launched with a twice-weekly print edition that looks pretty lightweight. Staffers will have the opportunity to apply for jobs at a much lower pay scale than what most of them are currently earning.  Edmonds suggests that Ann Arbor’s young, hip college-age crowd is more attuned to online media and extrapolates the same scenario playing out in cities like San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Jose, where a young, upwardly mobile populace creates a hostile environment for a daily newspaper.

Miscellany

Editor & Publisher continues to try to find insight in the increasingly meaningless “time-spent-on-sight” statistics for major newspapers.  We pointed out some of the weaknesses of this metric in our analysis of last month’s figures, including the paradoxical fact that big spikes in traffic can actually drive down time-spent figures.  Did the Washington Post really do anything to deserve a one-third drop in reader time commitment from May 2008 (16:04) to May 2009 (10:58)? If you look at the snapshot for those two months, things look pretty negative for the Post, but the April 2008 time-spent number was 12:55, which hints that the figure from May of last year was a fluke.  We wish Nielsen would stop flouting these monthly snapshots and concentrate instead on six month moving averages, which would filter out the short-term spikes that make year-to-year comparisons practically useless.


Fans of Jim Hopkins’ hugely popular Gannett Blog can breathe a sigh of relief.  The crusade to be the world’s most reliable source about what’s going on inside the company will continue at Gannettoid after the blog shuts down on July 19. Gannettoid is “a Web site that serves as a collection of stories, links and other Web sites about Gannett Company.” While it isn’t formally affiliated with Gannett Blog, Gannettoid is welcoming devotees to continue their conversations in the forum section.  No word on whether Hopkins will pop in for a visit now and then.


The new owners of the San Diego Union-Tribune are already selling off property acquired in the purchase of the newspaper last month. Two properties have gone on the market at a combined sale price of $9.1 million, which is nearly 40% higher than what Platinum Equity paid for them. The move would tend to confirm Ken Doctor’s theory that Platinum Equity acquired the U-T primarily for its real estate value and got the newspaper thrown in for free. (via Gary Scott)


Sun Newspapers will eliminate 115 full- and part-time positions in mid-August as part of a sweeping reorganization plan that will reduce the company’s portfolio of weekly newspapers by half and outsource accounting, payroll and home delivery to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Both organizations are owned by New Jersey-based Advance Publications.


The Columbia Journalism Review profiles Alan Mutter, whose Reflections of a Newsosaur blog has stirred up the industry and created a launch pad for Mutter’s ideas about reinventing news organizations. It’s a good companion to our Feb. 18 audio interview with Mutter that includes details about his new ViewPass venture, which seeks to give publishers a viable subscription model.


Katharine_WeymouthWashington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth addressed graduates of the Medill School Of Journalism at Northwestern University over the weekend, urging them to continue to fight the good fight and declaring that “the need for great journalism is stronger than ever.” You can read the full text of her address here. Dan Gillmor tweeted that it was a “defensive commencement speech by WashPost publisher; she plainly has no strategy for future.”  However, Weymouth’s remarks indicate that she understands that the old model is collapsing and that publishers must adapt to a new world in which they are no longer “a toll booth over a bridge” to their readers.  Read the text and draw your own conclusions.


Last week we noted that MySpace is struggling against Facebook and other adult-oriented social networks, calling into question the effectiveness of Rupert Murdoch’s management strategy.  Now MySpace is laying off two-thirds of its international workforce, or 300 people, on top of the 400 laid off in the US last week.  Altogether, the company has cut its total workforce by nearly 40%.  Which only goes to show, we suppose, that media dislocation isn’t limited strictly to old media.

And Finally…

Oyster_ReportersThere is hope for veteran journalists.  Oyster Hotel Reviews is a fledgling online venture that employs 13 journalists to conduct extensive reviews of lodgings for business and leisure travelers.  The site, which is funded by Bain Capital Ventures, bucks the current trend toward wisdom-of-crowds reviews by employing professionals to visit hotels under cover and write about their experiences. “Oyster.com is a great opportunity for these journalists as they provide full benefits, competitive salary and a job that includes travel to various hotels around the world fully paid for—who wouldn’t want that as a job?” a publicist wrote us.  We’re wondering where to apply.

Is Twitter a blessing or a curse for newsrooms?  Editors are struggling with that issue in light of a recent episode in which a New York Times reporter tweeted news of the company’s discussions with Google from a supposedly confidential meeting. The Times raised eyebrows yesterday by appointing Jennifer Preston, the former editor of its regional sections, as the paper’s first social media editor.  The job involves coordinating the newsroom’s use of social media, but it can also be seen as an effort to rein in reporters from sharing news before it’s been fully baked. Similar positions have recently been created by BusinessWeek, the Los Angeles Times and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Journalism professor Edward Wasserman tells how Matt Drudge supposedly broke the story of President Clinton’s affair with a White House intern more than a decade ago.  In fact, Drudge didn’t break the story but rather related the fact that Newsweek was sitting on it.  The information had been leaked to Drudge by a disgruntled Newsweek staffer, making it possibly the first example of reporters using social media channels to take publishing into their own hands.

Wasserman says the real risk of Twitter is that it will incline journalists to spend more time in front of their computer screens and less time pounding their beats.  What the issue really comes down to is control.  Editors are struggling with the conflicting priorities.  On the one hand, they understand that tools like Twitter help satisfy readers’ needs for immediacy and transparency.  On the other, they have trouble accepting the idea that reporters can now take their stories directly to the public without an editor’s approval. The Wall Street Journal recently issued guidelines for appropriate uses of social media by its staff, including the requirement that reporters gain approval before “friending” confidential sources.

The Times says that Preston won’t be a Twitter cop, but the coordinating function can involve shutting down social media just as easily as enabling it.  In the end, editors will lose this battle.  Media organizations have to get used to the idea of writing their first draft of history without level of fact-checking and oversight to which they are accustomed. That’s because if they don’t do it, somebody else will.  This isn’t a comfortable idea, or even a good one, but it’s where the media world is headed.

Time-Spent-Reading Numbers Baffle

The latest Nielsen online reports about the amount of time people spend on newspaper websites has been released, and again the results are all over the map.  A sampling of the monthly time-spent-reading figures comparing April 2008 to April 2009 (percentages approximate):

  • Wall Street Journal down 40%
  • Chicago Tribune up 20%
  • San Francisco Chronicle up 35%
  • Atlanta Journal Constitution up 90%
  • Seattle Times down 60%

And on and on.

Editor & Publisher tries to sort all this out.  It talks to the assistant managing editor for digital at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose readers spend an average of 40 minutes per month on the site. Terry Sauer tells E & P that the high numbers may be due to the placement of homepage links on individual articles, but he admits it lots of other papers do this as well.

Maybe the real issue is that time-spent-reading is a poor indicator of affinity.  With more and more people using tabbed browsers, it’s possible to leave a webpage open for hours without looking at it.  Also, heavy spikes of traffic prompted by local news events may actually drive down time-spent numbers because visitors come and leave so quickly.  Finally, a one-month snapshot in time is virtually meaningless.  Nielsen would do better to measure affinity in increments of at least six months.

Pressmen Feel the Pain

Newspaper cutbacks are falling apart on the shoulders of pressmen, the true ink-stained wretches of the industry.  Some big papers have cut back their pressroom staffs by 50% or more. Last year, the Boston Herald outsourced its print operations and cut 130 production jobs. The Boston Globe then said it would close its Billerica plant and lay off as many as 200 employees. The pressroom that printed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and still print the Seattle Times has been whittled back from 62 to 27 employees.

Against that backdrop, unions representing mailers and printers at the Globe this morning agreed to concessions with the New York Times Company that chop more than $7 million in salaries and benefits.  The pressmen’s meeting was described as “angry.” Unions representing editorial staff and drivers are scheduled to vote on concessions next month.

The Joy of Bankruptcy

Editor & Publisher has an excellent piece on the wonders and dangers of bankruptcy.  The story is timely because many newspaper companies must face the music this year.  Some people think the newspaper business is losing money, but that’s actually not true.  Most major dailies still make an operating profit but their ownership is burdened with crushing debt acquired during the ill-conceived consolidation binge of a few years ago.

On the plus side, bankruptcy is a way to freeze debt payments, cancel long-term contracts and renegotiate debt, often to much lower levels.  The negatives: Less flexibility to invest in anything beyond keeping the lights on, difficulty finding suppliers and the possibility that a judge could decide that the company isn’t worth saving.

That last item is the most ominous one for the industry.  E & P notes that judges will permit a company to exit bankruptcy only if they believe that the company has a reasonable chance of surviving.  If the judge doesn’t buy that prospect, he or she can simply shut down the operation.  That hasn’t happened yet, but with organizations like Tribune Co., Sun-Times Media Group, Journal Register Co., Philadelphia Media Holdings and the Minneapolis Star Tribune already in bankruptcy and several other companies facing the prospect, the picture could take shape quickly.

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services on Friday slashed its rating on McClatchy Co. deep into junk-bond territory after the company offered to buy back $1.15 billion in debt at just 20 cents on the dollar. McClatchy is now rated a CC borrower, which is just three steps away from a default rating.

Miscellany

Jim Hopkins, who started Gannett Blog nearly two years ago, will put it in hibernation at the end of September. Hopkins says he never intended to publish the blog longer than two or three years to begin with and that his decision was hastened by the increasingly negative tone of the roughly 4,000 comments he receives each month.  The news will no doubt come as a huge relief to Gannett executives, since the blog had become a major soapbox for disgruntled employees.


The St. Louis Post-Dispatch moved circulation functions to two other newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises, cutting 39 jobs in the process.


The Huntington, W.Va. Herald-Dispatch cut 15% of its workforce, or 24 positions.


Talking Points Memo, the Web startup that has drawn attention as a possible model for new journalism, unveiled a new design that looks a lot more like a newspaper. Alexander Shaw talks about the thinking behind the new look, which moves more news “above the fold.”

And Finally…

British workers in the media, publishing and entertainment industries are the heaviest drinkers, according to the Department of Health. A survey of 1,400 people by YouGov found that media people consume an average of 44 units (presumably, 1.5-ounce drinks) a week, or almost twice the recommended maximum. The finance, insurance and real estate sectors came in second at 29 units per week.

Newspapers continue to struggle with the paradox of skyrocketing popularity of their product while their their business model crumbles.

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) has released new Nielsen Online data for January that shows nearly a 12% year-over-year increase in monthly unique audience for newspaper Web sites. That’s “the highest for any month since NAA began tracking these numbers in 2004,” according to a press release.

Also up (year-over-year): Unique audience (11%), reach (7%) and page views (15%). Here are all the numbers. No doubt the Presidential inauguration and the cratering economy had a lot to do with growth, but the trajectory is still impressive.

Meanwhile, layoffs are running well ahead of last year’s pace, half the newspaper holding companies in America are in or near bankruptcy and Time magazine just published its list of The 10 Most Endangered Newspapers in America. We can’t remember a greater disconnect in any industry between product success and business failure.

The NAA’s announcement comes during the association’s MediaXChange conference going on in Las Vegas. We were surprised to learn about this event since we had managed to overlook it entirely until the press release showed up this week. The program looks to be focused on the right things: mobile, monetization, metrics, models and so on. Keynoter was Tony Hsieh, the Zappos CEO who has become a bit of a Twitter icon.

The NAA’s website for the event still betrays a certain clueless about the ways of the Internet, though. It’s positively hostile toward search engines and its blogs lack the essential element of the blogosphere: links. Here’s a short tutorial on why links are important. If you want to do a crash course in search optimization and online promotion, drop us a line.

Miscellany

Lots of colleges and universities now give away materials from past courses as a way of promoting the quality of their curricula. Online Degree World has a nice list of 100 Free Open Courseware Classes on Journalism, Blogging and New Media. This is the future, right? So what are you waiting for? College courses for free!


chronicle_in_ruins

That’s the headline that appeared atop this paid opinion (PDF) in the San Franciso Examiner last Friday, urging public action to save the Chronicle. The author, who identifies himself as Delfin Virgil, evokes images of William Randolph Hearst and historic photos of guys with suits and mustaches to argue that the Chron is an institution that belongs to the people and it should be given over some group unspecified group of citizenry to keep it alive.


The South Wales Echo just launched a new design with an edgy grunge video that “manage[s] to make the newspaper seem really cool,” according to Charles Apple. He’s got a link to the 1:43 clip or you can see it on YouTube. Learn from this.

And Finally…

Two gems from Erica Smith:

Former Journalist Christopher Ave has written a song called the Copy Editor’s Lament (The Layoff Song), celebrating the contributions of the many copy editors who are being cast aside as news organizations shift to blog-style journalism:

AP Stylebook is my bible,

Helps me stop the suit for libel,

But nothing ensures my survival now…

I don’t know what what I’ll do,

Now that I am through,

Killing my last adjective.

When not writing songs Ave is the political editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Erica also offers her favorite selection from someecards:

cant_lay_us_off

The New Republic devotes 3,400 words to an examination of The Politico, a beltway publishing phenomenon that is upending the balance of media power on Capitol Hill. The piece implies that the Politico is not a place where aging reporters go to live off their reputations. It’s a pressure-cooker environment fueled by the constant drive to be first with everything and to win the attention of broadcast outlets. Witness its Politico44 diary, which documents the activities of the Obama administration literally minute by minute.

Politico’s 60 reporters file their first stories of the day by 8 a.m. and carry tech gear that makes it possible for them to post from anywhere, including a city bus. Stories are written and formatted to be read on a BlackBerry. Speed is essential. Politico aims to be first with every story and it has scored some notable exclusives, including last fall’s scandal about the price of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe.

Worked to Exhaustion

Reporters are handsomely paid but worked to exhaustion. The piece relates the story of one Politico staffer starting his daily column as other reporters covering the Hillary Clinton campaign where shuffling off to bed after a long day. Journalists are encouraged to promote their own stories. A staff of three publicists spend their days sending links to political bloggers to do just that.

The goal is not just to be first, but also to the influence of the media.  Political strategy is to be the number one source of breaking news for the cable networks that cover Washington on almost a 24/7 basis.  It is making rapid gains against the Washington Post, which initially offered to incubate the startup before alternative funding sources emerged.

Started by two ex-Washington Post editors and funded by media mogul-to-be Robert Albritton, The Politico is upsetting the applecart in Beltway journalism. On Capitol Hill, it’s considered a must-read. However, it’s earned its share of critics among mainstream media, who sniff that The Politico is too quick to go with gossip in the absence of facts.

The Politico makes most of its revenue from a print edition that recently expanded to five days a week, but Allbritton says he’s preparing for the day when print is out of the picture and The Politico makes its money online. Those preparations are going pretty well; Allbritton said the operation could turn a profit in six months. “We’re way ahead of budget…It wouldn’t surprise me if the profit this year would count in the millions of dollars.”

Blogger’s Growing Influence Doesn’t Faze Gannett

Gannett Blog's Hopkins

Gannett Blog's Hopkins

Dow Jones profiles Jim Hopkins, the man behind the popular Gannett Blog. Hopkins took a buyout from Gannett a little more than a year ago and has been living on severance, savings and the kindness of visitors ever since. He hopes to generate about $6,000 per quarter in advertising and donations revenue. At 100,000 page views a month, the site has impressive traffic for one about such a specific topic.

Gannett Blog is a great example of how blogs have changed corporate communications. In this case, the chief source of information about a company is outside its own walls, yet Gannett continues to ignore Hopkins. That only magnifies curiosity about the blog and boosts its visibility, not to mention its word-of-mouth popularity among disenfranchised employees. Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell is quoted as saying that Hopkins doesn’t want to hear the company’s side of the story. “Since that’s a frustrating process with him, we try to keep it to a minimum.”

But Gannett doesn’t have to engage with Hopkins. Blogs have a feature called comments that enables visitors to state their opinions directly, without a media filter. If Gannett would start engaging with readers through comments, it would win sympathy just for listening, regardless of whether Hopkins agreed or not.

There’s plenty of evidence that engagement works.  About 18 months ago, Dell Computer reversed its practice of ignoring blogger commentary and adopted a new policy of responding to each and every post, whether positive or negative. The initiative reduced negative commentary from 50% to 20% in a little less than a year. For businesses have good reasons for doing what they do, engagement is always a better strategy than avoidance. Gannett still doesn’t get it.

Miscellany

It’s the middle of winter and nerves are fraying up in Canada. Quebecor Media has locked out 253 employees at its flagship paper, the Journal de Montréal. Employees there “have refused to accept cuts to benefits, a longer workweek for no extra pay and a loss of journalistic independence over the paper’s content,” writes Lyle Stewart, who admits that he is affiliated with the newspaper’s union. And he thinks the Montreal Gazette may not be far behind. “Unionized workers there recently rejected a contract offer that would have eliminated several positions and offloaded the editing of the paper to a centralized office in Hamilton, Ontario.”

If you wonder why you haven’t read more about this, all we can say is how’s your French?


Tim Burden has assembled an impressive timeline of quotes about the micropayments debate. His discussion thread begins last Dec. 20 with a post by Joel Brinkley and goes for exactly two months. He hits all the high points we’ve seen. It’s a great running script of this tortuous debate and we hope he updates it from time to time.


The Yakima (Wa.) Herald-Republic says business isn’t bad, it’s making money and the layoff of four to six employees – or less than 3% of the workforce – is a response to general economic pressure. In fact, the company just signed a deal to print the 5,800-circulation Ellensburg Daily Record.


The Daytona Beach News-Journal laid off nine more staff members, bringing to 185 the number of employees it has furloughed in the last eight months. That’s 25% of the workforce. Commenters weigh in with the usual collection of politics-laden diatribes, making us wish they was a way to lay off them.

And Finally…

TJ Sullivan has posted an online petition calling upon newspaper companies to wall off their Web sites to non-paying subscribers for one week in July. He posts an extended explanation of his thinking on LA Observed. Lots of people have blogged about the petition over the last two weeks, yet it has garnered less than 200 signatures. It’s not such a bad idea, but maybe the sheer impracticality of it is inspiring ennui.

Over the last few weeks, the mood in the news industry has shifted from a kind of morbid resignation to one of fiery indignation over the forces that are tearing apart a once-mighty business. The promising development is that media supporters have stopped trying to resurrect a dying print industry and are now focused on saving the essence of quality journalism. They’re getting creative in their approaches. Below are a few recent opinions.

Lean, Mean Media Machine

Writing in the Dallas Morning News, John Chachas says the time has come for the US government to jettison old cross-ownership rules and grant media companies broad license to prosecute people who steal their content.

Chacas, who co-heads the media practice at Lazard, proposes granting news organization “a finite (36-month) anti-trust law exemption to permit deployment of an industry-wide system to track and charge for re-use of their content.” Today’s bloggers thumb their noses at the organizations whose content they steal, and newspapers’ unwillingness to defend their value is their undoing, he says.

Chacas also calls on the government to repeal laws that prohibit media cross-ownership in regional markets. Information no longer knows geographic boundaries, he says, and laws that make it easier for the Los Angeles Daily News to merge with The New York Times than with the Orange County Register are a set of handcuffs on media businesses. Conversely, it’s no longer relevant for the government to try to preserve multiple voices in a market when readers and advertisers no longer believe they’re needed. His four-point proscription is an intelligent call for legal and legislative change.

Reinvent the Model; Save What’s Best

The New York Times rounds up opinions from thought leaders around the industry. The consensus: stop trying to revive the traditional model and focus on finding places to add value.

MinnPost.com CEO Joel Kramer says news organizations will need to derive more revenue from readers in the future, even if that means shrinking circulation: “A newspaper that sold 400,000 copies at 50 cents daily and $1.25 on Sunday might sell only 100,000 at four times the price. But there would be a business incentive to keep quality high, because each extra copy sold should increase profit, not subtract from it.”

Steven Brill mostly agrees. He says the key is to find the crevices where local information needs aren’t being served: “Local newspapers are the best brands, and people will pay a small amount online to get information – whether it be a zoning board meeting or a Little League game – that they can’t get anywhere else.”

Geneva Overholser of the Annenberg School of Journalism is in the same camp. She sees value in a hybrid of community journalists and professional publishers. “These changes will be difficult for newspapers which have considered themselves the primary newsgathers, but they may lead to the next chapter of American journalism,” she writes.

Craig Newmark, whose Craigslist.org is often seen as the Great Satan by the newspaper industry, says media companies need to involve their readers in the process of determining what they do. Quoting David Weinberger, Newmark says, “a paper should be perceived as ‘ours’ (the public) not ‘theirs’ (the owners).” Perhaps the Great Satan is really the newspaper owners.

Author Andrew Keen picks up the thread, suggesting that the future is in a layered model in which community members contribute information that’s then organized by staffs of professional editors. “Rather than slithering into the democratic swamp of crowd-generated content, smart local publishers should focus on their core expertise – the organization and curation of information by professionals,” he writes.

Edward Fouhy of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism tells the story of three small operations that are proud of providing balanced, accurate coverage of local news. “Citizens are inventing a new form of locally based and financed journalism while preserving the values of accuracy, objectivity and independence,” he writes, hopefully.

There are more than 180 comments as of this morning. Thankfully, they are mostly free of the partisan politican ranting that seems to plague this discussion.


BTW, Jack D. Lai thinks micropayments are stupid and he’s got a long list of links to people who agree. It’s an impressive archive and we really hope to get around to reading it all.

Micropayments with a Twist

Steve Outing opens his Editor & Publisher column by dissing micropayments (“that model will only hasten newspapers’ death spiral”) and then goes on to make a passionate case for…micropayments! Okay, we’re oversimplifying. What Outing doesn’t like is the idea that each publisher would have its own system for charging people a few cents to consume its content, sort of like running a PayPal button in the sidebar. He’s right: That’s a dumb idea. The solution may be in a service like Kachingle, a system that distributes payments to website owners based upon their readership.

Kachingle users only have to set up and fund one account. Whenever they visit a site that’s part of the network, Kachingle allocates a portion of their account to that provider. If Newspaper Death Watch gets 20% of your monthly visits, then the owners get 20% of the payment you set aside. Thanks! Readers decide how much they want to pay and Kachingle takes care of the accounting. In theory, the value of the network grows as membership expands. The New York Times may be helping Newspaper Death Watch by joining the network, but the equation also works in reverse. Somehow, we think we’d get the better of that deal.

Steve Outing is nothing if not thought-provoking. Although this column is a tad more enthusiastic than his usual fare, he’s found an interesting model to promote. Hopefully, the column will still be available at SteveOuting.com after E&P inevitably pulls it off its website. You can also comment at SteveOuting.com, but not at E&P.

Miscellany

Last month we told you about The Printed Blog (“Extra! Extra! Blog All About It!”) a startup that’s proposing to reinvigorate print publishing by harvesting content from local bloggers. Simon Owens called up founder Joshua Karp and found an Internet entrepreneur who’s serious about print.

“The print newspaper doesn’t need to go away simply because it’s on paper,” Karp told him. The problem is that publishers haven’t revisited the way they produce their printed products to include the work of the community. The Printed Blog is on thin financial footing unless more funding can be found, Karp said. He’s funding the first issues himself and needs to find venture capital “over the next few weeks.”


They dribble out the news about cuts at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in this story. The paper will lay off 17 people but wait, there will probably be more. The neighbor island bureaus will be shut down. Oh, and there’ll be a redesign from a broadsheet to a tabloid. Praent Oahu Publications is also discontinuing its Friday edition of the MidWeek tabloid. You have to stick with this story to the end in order to learn everything.


The Charleston Post and Courier has laid off 25 employees after a buyout failed to achieve cost reduction goals. When the company announced its buyout offer in July, the newspaper reported that it had 513 full-time and part-time employees. It will employ 460 people after the latest cuts.

micropaymentsYou can skip roughly the first 1,500 words of Jon Austin’s lengthy essay on The Rowdy Crowd and jump right to the nut graph about micropayments. This otherwise rambling opinion piece makes a persuasive case that the news business can create a viable economic model by charging small amounts for each item of content a reader consumes. We’re not talking 25 cents here; we’re talking ¼ of a cent. The technology actually exists to charge very small amounts for very focused transactions, Austin writes, and the newspaper industry could be the first with sufficient motivation to make the system work.

Micropayments were an idea that came out of the early Internet. The idea was that electronic networks removed so much cost from a transaction that it was theoretically possible to conduct profitable exchanges at prices of as little as a few cents. The cell phone companies have been doing this for years by debiting transactions against a buyer’s phone bill. Now Apple is selling iPhone software applications for as little as 99 cents. It’s not a big step from there to ask readers to pay a few pennies to get an article they can’t find anywhere else. People are already comfortable with carrying around their Starbucks and McDonald’s cards and charging small transactions against them. Why can’t the same thing work for information?

The Economist suggests a similar idea in a short column that suggests that consumers may be more willing to pay than one would think I they didn’t have a choice. “Few people would have guessed how much British viewers would be prepared to pay to watch televised football matches—which used to be on free-to-view channels—before Mr Murdoch’s satellite television bought up the rights and began charging,” says the unnamed editorialist. The piece also quotes Los Angeles Times editor Russ Stanton, saying that the paper’s online revenues now pay for the entire print and online editorial staff, a claim we hadn’t seen before. This makes print officially a loss leader at the LA Times.

It seems to us that micropayments are worth another look. If a consortium of publishers could agree to share the costs and to firewall some of their content this way, the technology just might have a chance to generate a meaningful revenue stream for publishers whose local content is truly exclusive.

Le Lockout

“Photographers and journalists at the paper make an average salary of $88,000 for a 30-hour week. Editors make an annual average salary of $125,000. Employees are entitled to four to six weeks of annual vacation paid at time-and-a-half.” Sound like paradise? Actually, the union is pretty unhappy with the state of affairs at Le Journal de Montreal and a contract dispute with management led to a lockout over the weekend. Management charges that the union refuses to negotiate a contract in good faith,  and this has frustrated modernization efforts. Union leaders charge that parent company Quebecor Media’s plans to merge Le Journal’s online presence with the media conglomerate’s other holdings will debase the quality of journalism. We can’t remember a newspaper union ever making that a bargaining issue before, particularly at a time of crisis.

Miscellany

Writing on the Knight Digital Media Center, David Westphal suggests that newspapers could tap into foundation grants to shore up their investigative journalism practices. Noting that the Knight Foundation recently gave $5 million to 21 civic foundations for projects that sounded strikingly like local news operations, Westphal suggests that public/private partnerships could enable newspapers to tap in to grants made to local civic organizations and fund projects that would be otherwise unsustainable. It turns out that philanthropies aren’t as resistant to the idea as you might think. Westphal quotes sources at the J-Lab at American University saying the lab has already funded 120 pilot projects with mainstream news organizations. He also quotes the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors saying the idea deserves discussion.


nyt_buildingA couple of big asset deals may be about to go down. PaidContent.org reports that The New York Times Co. is close to selling 19 of the 25 floors of its new headquarters building in Manhattan to an investment management firm. We weren’t even aware that there were any investment management firms left. The deal would reportedly have W.P. Carey & Co. buying the space and leasing them back to the Times. In a sign of how screwy the real estate business is, the Times Co. would retain ownership of the six floors it doesn’t occupy. PaidContent also says Tribune Co. is mulling a $900 million offer for the Chicago Cubs from the Ricketts family. The offer is the best of the three Tribune has received. Even if it’s successful, approvals and financing could take months.


Tim Windsor, who’s newly blogging at Nieman Journalism Lab, points us to a veteran journalist with the delightfully ethnic name of Gina Chen who’s got a terrific how-to blog called Save the Media. Gina exhorts journalists to dive in and start using tools like Facebook and Twitter. She also offers advice to make those tools a little less intimidating. Her plain-talk style is easy to read and she understands the journalist’s perspective. She joins our blog roll and we recommend you bookmark her site.


The Port of Belfast, Northern Ireland, is bullish on newspapers. Or at least bullish on newsprint. It will spend £4.5 million (about $6.1) expanding its paper and newsprint handling facilities. “From nothing just ten years ago, paper imports are now an important part of the port’s diversified trade base,” said the port’s chief executive.


Terence Walsh of the Frederick (Md.) News-Post gets caught up in Obamania, asserting that the new president “has inspired more people, especially young people, to pay attention to the world around them and serve their communities than any politician in recent memory.” He believes this is a rare opportunity for newspapers to reassert their value to young people who are newly energized to learn about the world around them. We hope he’s right, thought ungluing young people’s eyes from their Facebook news feed might be a bigger task than editors imagine.


Class act: The weekly Town Meeting of Elk Rapids (Mich.) shut down after more than 30 years last week. It announced its closure in a two-sentence ad on page 2 of its final edition: “Today marks the final issue of the Town Meeting. We appreciate your loyalty over the 30-plus years the Town Meeting has served your community.”

And Finally…

Chris Freiberg started a Facebook group asking people to buy a newspaper on Groundhog Day (Feb. 2) as a way of showing support for the industry. He invited 600 friends and word-of-mouth has since swelled acceptance to more than 14,000 people. It’s a nice endorsement for a beleaguered industry, but you do have to read some of the raw and funny wall posts.

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Downturn Hits Ethnic Press

New York’s ethnic press, which has been mostly insulated from the downturn affecting the newspaper industry, is beginning to suffer. A Spanish-language daily and a Chinese weekly have already closed this year and now the Ming Pao Daily News, which is considered the most intellectual of New York’s four Chinese newspapers, is reportedly slated for closure by its Hong Kong parent. The New York Times notes that ethnic newspapers enjoy an intimacy with their readers and advertisers that big-city dailies traditionally don’t and that this has bought them some security in the past. But the lousy economy is threatening the already thin margins of these small-circulation properties, and many don’t have websites to fall back on. Ming Pao will continue to publish a free daily, which has been the sole bright spot in the market. New York had 10 Chinese daily newspapers just 20 years ago.

Extra! Extra! Blog All About It!

Blogging has come full circle in San Francisco, where a software entrepreneur-turned-publisher has launched a weekly newspaper composed entirely of blog entries. Joshua Karp has big plans for the chain he calls The Printed Blog. If his idea reaches its full potential, he’ll have hyper-local twice-daily editions in thousands of communities around the US. Chicago alone could support 50 localized Printed Blogs. Karp’s editorial model is very Web 2.0-like: bloggers give him their stuff in exchange for a slice of the profits. More than 300 have already signed on. Profits aren’t an issue right now, but Karp believes that local businesses will appreciate the tight control they’ll have over their ad messages as well as the low cost of $15 to $25 to reach 1,000 readers. The New York Times account quotes one advertiser exulting in his new ability to tailor his ads to specific neighborhoods. Printing is outsourced to local distribution points. Naturally, there’s a website.

Layoff Log

  • Voice of San Diego is reporting that another 50 employees will be laid off at the Union-Tribune. The paper has been a prominent victim of the area’s cratering economy, having already laid off 15% of its employees a year ago and staging another buyout since then. The U-T has also been for sale for the past six months. While several local investors have expressed interest, no one has written a check yet.
  • The Mason City (Ia.) Globe Gazette has laid off nine full-time employees and will leave six open positions vacant. No word on how large the total staff is.
  • Lee Enterprises-owned River Valley Newspaper Group, which includes two dailies and eight weeklies in Wisconsin, has cut 10 positions across the company.
  • The Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle has cut the equivalent of eight positions from a staff of unspecified size.
  • The Peoria Journal Star is laying off an unspecified number of employees part of a plan to reposition the paper. Asked for a quote, publisher Ken Mauser delivers one of the most vapid comments of this new year: “Like many companies operating in today’s business environment, change will be inevitable and necessary to position our business for the future.” A blogger at Illinoize says 11 people lost their jobs.

Miscellany

The sour economy has spurred the San Jose Newspaper Guild and two newspapers to come to terms after 23 months of negotiations. The 25 Guild members get a year of job security and pay raises through 2012, but give up the right to block management from outsourcing some of their jobs.


The right-wing Tulsa Beacon takes the publisher of the Tulsa World to task for joining the most exclusive country club in the city while simultaneously laying off 28 people at the newspaper. Hypocrisy, the Beacon reports, is exclusively the domain of the liberal media.


Good obituary writers have their research done well before the subject is laid to rest. In that spirit, Newsosaur Alan Mutter begins the process of writing an obit for the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that he clearly believes is destined for our R.I.P. column in the not-too-distant future. Mutter, who used to work at the Sun-Times, begins his tale in 1984 and tells the story of the first 10 years of ownership changes that “turned our thoughtful, respected and reasonably prosperous tabloid into a scandal sheet.” It’s a personal, poignant and sometimes funny account that will be told in installments.


Congratulations to Martin Langeveld, whose thoughtful News After Newspapers blog has been scooped up by the Nieman Foundation as part of its journalism lab.  He’s joined there by Tim Windsor and Matthew Ingram. In an introductory entry tellingly tagged “audience, doom, newspapers, and print,” Langeveld describes the reasons why the industry has entered into an inescapable vortex and how the thinking at daily papers must change if there is to be any hope of survival. He will continue to serve up the provocative ideas he started at NAN and the industry will be better for it.


The Register-Pajaronian of the Santa Cruz valley area will cut back its publication schedule to three days a week from six. The 141-year-old paper blamed its financial troubles on the collapse of major advertisers Mervyns and Circuit City. Unspecified layoffs accompanied the move.


If you’re still wondering “Who the hell is Carlos Slim?” Fortune has some background for you. A brilliant investor who specializes in buying distressed firms, Slim is now bailing out The New York Times Co. and may end up controlling the company as a result. For journalists, the nut graph is near the end: ‘Slim seems to neither covet the attention nor access that comes with being a media baron, nor to share the controlling Sulzbergers’ view that their ownership is a trust that puts the company’s journalistic mission ahead of commercial imperative.” If it’s a bio you want, get thee to Wikipedia.

And Finally…

The Boston Globe held out longer against front-page advertising than The New York Times – about two weeks longer. The Globe‘s first page-one ad ran on Wednesday, timed to coincide with the production of an additional 100,000 inauguration issues. The ad was for the movie “Defiance” (see below).

globe_ad1

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Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been one of the most vocal supporters of newspaper among the ranks of the digerati, so it must hurt him to pull the plug on Google Print Ads. When it launched the program two years ago, Google hoped Print Ads would not only be a revenue stream but also a sincere effort to bridge the print/online gap and inject new life into newspapers’ traditional business. Unfortunately, “It is clear that the current Print Ads product is not the right solution,” wrote Spencer Spinnell, Director of Google Print Ads, in a blog entry, “so we are freeing up those resources to try to come up with new and innovative online solutions that will have a meaningful impact for users, advertisers and publishers.”

Print Ads was a variation of Google’s ad brokering system that enabled advertisers to bid on space in member newspapers. Google eventually amassed over 800 newspaper partners. The program differed from a bigger initiative by Yahoo because Google targeted print advertising directly. Yahoo’s newspaper partnerships are strictly online. Spinnell’s announcement was tinged with regret. “We believe fair and accurate journalism and timely news are critical ingredients to a healthy democracy,” he wrote. “We remain dedicated to working with publishers to develop new ways for them to earn money.”

Will Slim Bid for Times Co.?

carlos_slimNow that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has loaned The New York Times Co. $250 million to meet its debt obligations, speculation is focusing on his motivations.  With a personal fortune estimated at more than $60 billion, Slim is one of the world’s richest men. Buying the Times Co. would add a new chapter in his storied career investing in telecommunications, retailing, construction, banking, insurance, railroads and mining. Unlike Sam Zell, Slim could finance the Times Co. with pocket change, meaning he could own one of the world’s greatest media brands without the overhead of having to meet onerous financial terms. Alan Mutter suggests that Slim could parlay his investment into an outright takeover, something no other investor has been able to attempt because of the Ochs Sulzberger family’s tight control of the company. He notes that the comparatively shallow-pocketed Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones for a much higher price. “If Murdoch could swing $5 billion for Dow Jones with only $8 billion in personal net worth, then imagine how much Slim could afford to pay for a trophy like NYT,” Mutter writes.

Journalism’s Distant Mirror

new_yorker_illustrationWriting in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore reminds us that newspapers have been declared dead before. Her historical account begins in 1765 and takes us through the crucial role that newspapers played in colonial America by fanning public outrage against British – and later American – rule. The Stamp Act, passed by Parliament that year, was widely thought to be the death of newspapers, since it affixed a tax to every page printers produced. But resourceful publishers persevered, even moving their presses by boat under the cloak of night to evade government enforcers.

Lepore notes that the concept of an impartial press is a relatively recent invention. “Because early newspapers tended to take aim at people in power, they were sometimes called ‘paper bullets,'” she writes. “Standards of journalistic objectivity date to the nineteenth century. Before then, the whole point was to have a point of view.” In fact, Benjamin Franklin, who could be considered the father of the American newspaper, didn’t see his role as being “to find out facts. It was to publish a sufficient range of opinion.” In that form, “Early American newspapers tend to look like one long and uninterrupted invective.”

This oppositional role didn’t just roil the British authorities. John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act in 1798, making it a crime to defame his administration. “Adams had come to consider printers a scourge,” Lepore writes. Adams’ successor, Thomas Jefferson, was an ardent supporter of a free press, but by the beginning of his second term, even Jefferson admitted to having thought about prosecuting some publishers.

While not framing the point explicitly, Lepore makes the case that partisan journalism of the kind practiced by bloggers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Truth may be the casualty of unbridled opinion, but that was also the case in the 18th century, when even Sam Adams occasionally made up stories to dramatize British cruelty. The fact that some newspapers published untruths didn’t make them any less vital to the establishment of a fledgling democracy. “Without partisan and even scurrilous printers pushing the limits of a free press in the seventeen-nineties, [author] Marcus Daniel argues, the legitimacy of a loyal opposition never would have been established and the new nation, with its vigorous and democratizing political culture, might never have found its feet.”

We feel compelled to note again that Newspaper Death Watch is cited in the article’s opening paragraph, although we differ with the author’s characterization of our tone as gleeful. We prefer to think of it as bemused.

Miscellany

The LA Times is girding for more layoffs. Russ Newton, the Times‘ senior vice president of production, sent a letter to the Teamsters union, which shared it with its members. “The Los Angeles Times has decided to take steps to further reduce its cost including, but not limited to, layoffs,” Newton writes. “[T]he Company intends to implement the cutbacks no later than March 15th, 2009.”


Romenesko reports that Gannett newspaper boss Bob Dickey’s decision to fly from Virginia to Arizona to announce plans to sell the Tucson Citizen wasn’t entirely altruistic. In fact, Arizona appears to have been just a waypoint on a trip further west. Dickey is in Palm Beach, Calif. this week for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament.


tribune_to_goEditor & Publisher‘s Mark Fitzgerald reviews the redesigned Chicago Tribune and pronounces it a “home run.” With its clean look, lack of jumps and liberal use of info graphics, the “to-go” edition of the Trib, which will only be sold on newsstands, “eloquently makes the argument that it’s time America’s big-city dailies seriously consider converting to a compact format,” Fitzgerald writes. The question is when the Tribune will simplify things and make the tabloid edition available to home subscribers, too.


Lee Enterprises reported a 69.3% decline in first-quarter profits as revenues dropped 13%. The company said it is further cutting costs and will ask shareholders to authorize a reverse stock split to comply with the minimum bid price requirement of the New York Stock Exchange listing standards, if necessary. In an unrelated move, the publisher of the Lee-owned Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Capital Times said it will cut 12 positions, mostly in editorial.


The World Association of Newspapers will postpone its annual congress because of the global economic crisis. The meeting was set to take place in Hyderabad, India in March, but only 250 delegates have signed up so far. That’s well below the 1,500 who usually attend.


Last summer we told you about Neighborsgo.com, a spinoff of the Dallas Morning News that uses a social network to anchor a community journalism initiative. Apparently it’s working. Editor & Publisher reports that Neighborsgo is being expanded to cover 47 neighborhoods, with each section featuring headlines, local restaurants, gas prices, education resources and crime news.


Media malaise continues to spread beyond the newspaper industry. Warner Bros. Entertainment is cutting its global workforce by 10% by laying off 600 people and leaving 200 vacant positions unfilled. Clear Channel Communications, which is another diversified media company, announced plans to idle 1,850 workers last week.


Hearst Corp. has officially notified employees of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that they will all lose their jobs if no one buys the newspaper. This may have seemed obvious following last week’s announcement that the paper will be shuttered if a buyer isn’t found, but Hearst had to send a letter as a formality. A few people might be offered jobs at SeattlePI.com if the publisher elects to keep the website alive.


And Finally…

Here’s one to satisfy your inner voyeur. Nicholas White was trapped in an elevator in New York City’s McGraw-Hill building for 41 hours. It was a lonely ordeal, but White unknowingly had a security camera to keep him company. His plight is documented in a time-lapse video that condenses 41 hours to just a few minutes set to mournful music.

It looks like 2009 will be a make-or-break year for many media companies, thanks to an advertising climate the some forecasters are predicting will the worst in generations.

Media economist Jack Myers is predicting an “advertising depression,” says Dow Jones. “Myers, a longtime industry consultant who runs JackMyers.com, is now forecasting an unprecedented three straight years of declines in advertising and marketing spending in the U.S. starting this year,” the wire service says. “To put that in perspective, the industry hasn’t suffered even a two-year spending decline in advertising since the 1930s.” The result will be a “massive shakeout” in industries that depend on advertising for their livelihood. Myers expects advertising spending in the U.S. to call 2.4% this year, 6.7% next year and 2.3% in 2010. His forecast roughly agrees with estimates by Publicis Groupe. The downturn will make it more difficult for media companions to effect the transformations that are necessary to survive in the customer-driven marketing environment of the future.

Meanwhile, Barclays Capital expects domestic ad spending to drop 10% next year, which is dramatically worse than performance during both the 1991 and 2001 recessions. The forecast is a substantial revision of Barclays’ prediction just two months ago that next year’s decline would be a less-drastic 5.5%. The investment bank sees trouble in the local advertising industry, which is often seen as the best hope for newspaper salvation. Local spending, which makes up some 39% of the $252.1 billion U.S. ad market, will fall 12.2% in 2009, while national spending will drop 8.4%. Barclays forecast that local ad spending would decline an additional 1.4% even when the broader market recovers in 2010. The one positive note: Internet advertising should increase 6.1% in 2009 and 12% in 2010, but that segment will still account for just 10% of ad spending next year.

Given those forecasts, it’s not surprising that asset values have tanked. “Some 30 US newspapers are up for sale…but few buyers have emerged in spite of rock bottom prices,” notes the Financial Times. Valuations have fallen by at least half compared to their highs and signs that the advertising environment is worsening aren’t helping, the paper says. To illustrate the degree of loss in asset values, the Boston Globe was valued at $650 million by a consortium of buyers just two years ago. Today, the value of the Globe and the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette combined is just $120 million. In fact, The New York Times Co.’s most valuable New England asset may be its equity stake in the Boston Red Sox. It was worth about $135 million before the financial crisis hit. And that’s without Mark Teixeira.

Some Good News, Too

While admitting that 2009 will be a mostly crummy year for the economy, Poynter Media Business Analyst Rick Edmonds sees reasons to believe better days are ahead. For one thing, oil is comparatively cheap right now and the price of paper is coming down. While you shouldn’t get comfortable with short-term trends in these commodities, at least they are two fewer factors weighing on the industry. The buyouts and layoffs of 2008 will show also benefits in 2009 as newspapers remove those costs from their books. And there are promising signs in newspapers’ online activities that may broadly benefit the industry. Edmonds is careful to hedge his bets, but he wants to exit the year on a positive note.

Cuts Take Toll on Quality

Print editors are accustomed to getting letters from readers taking them to task for erroneously saying the California Gold Rush started in 1845 instead of 1848 and  concluding, “Shoddy fact-checking like this makes me skeptical of anything you report in your journal.” Editors usually laugh off these missives, but with readers enjoying a bounty of choice these days and freely publishing their own critiques, the gaffes caused by overworked news staffs potentially become more damaging. Detroit NASCAR Examiner Josh Lobdell points out three major errors in a Detroit News story and questions how a newspaper in the Motor City can do such a shoddy job of covering motoring. The Sunday Business Post of Ireland restates almost verbatim what we suggested 2 1/2 years ago: that the cycle of cutbacks will lead to inferior products that people won’t want to read, which will harm circulation and lead to more layoffs. You don’t cost-cut your way to leadership.

valley_newsIf errors are your thing, read Craig Silverman’s year-end column in the Toronto Star about the worst publishing gaffes of 2008. Our favorite is the AP’s reference to Joseph Lieberman as a “Democratic vice-presidential prick.” There are plenty more on Silverman’s awesome blog, Regret the Error. Be sure to read his annual celebration of the worst errors and corrections in the media, an award he calls the Crunks. One of the best has to be this front page of northern New England’s Valley News, which actually managed to misspell its own name on its front page one day.

Report: Newspaper Sites Embrace Web Tools

The Bivings Group examined the websites of the 100 top U.S. newspapers to see what they’re doing with the Internet. While a few activities have changed little over the last year (RSS, reporter blogs and video), there have been striking increases in the use of some features:

  • Fifth-eight percent of newspaper websites post user-generated photos, 18% accept video and 15% publish user-generated articles.  That’s way up from the 24% that accepted such material in 2007.
  • Seventy five percent now accept article comments in some form, compared to 33% in 2007.
  • Facebook-like social networking tools are beginning to gain traction, with 10% of newspapers now using them, or double last year’s figure.
  • Three-quarters list some kind of most-popular ranking, such as most e-mailed or most commented. Just 33% had that feature in 2006.
  • You can now submit articles to social bookmarking sites like Digg and del.icio.us at 92% of newspaper sites, compared to only 7% in 2006.
  • Only 11% of websites now require registration to view full articles, compared to 29% last year.
  • Other stats: 57% have PDF editions, 20% have chat, and 40% offer SMS alerts.

Don’t strain your eyes: Click the image below for a larger version. More charts and data is in the summary report.

bivings_comparison

Miscellany

Journal-Register has reportedly closed a chain of Connecticut weeklies. The North Haven Courier reports, “On Dec. 18, members of [the Shore Line and Elm City Newspapers, a weekly newspaper chain in the shoreline and Greater New Haven area] were notified they had been laid off…The affected papers include the North Haven Post, the East Haven Advertiser, the Branford Review, the Shore Line Times of Guilford and Madison, the Clinton Recorder, and the Pictorial Gazette and Main Street News in Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Chester, Lyme, and Old Lyme…Joyce Mletschnig, who until Thursday was the Pictorial Gazette’s associate editor, said that their newspapers would be shut down.”


The Seattle Times is asking about 500 non-unionized employees to take a week’s unpaid vacation in order to avoid more layoffs. Employees can take the seven days off at any time over the next two months. Management at the Times, which has cut 22% of its staff this year, may believe that further layoffs will undermine quality to too great a degree, so it’s getting creative with strategy.


Russ Smith has some good quotes in a piece on Splice Today about what he believes is the inevitable demise of print newspapers. Smith, 53, is an unabashed newspaper fan but he’s noticed that even his contemporaries are dropping their print subscriptions or not noticing when the paper no longer arrives on the doorstep. He also notices that his kids and their friends are just as well-informed about current events as he, a counter to the conventional wisdom that young people don’t read. Smith boldly predicts that The New York Times will be sold by the end of 2009, with Rupert Murdoch on the short list of likely buyers. On the other hand, Murdoch may be content simply to let his nemesis fade away.


Raleigh News & Observer Staff Writer Mark Schultz writes with passion about why he got into newspapers and why they’re still relevant. His best line comes in an account about interviewing a woman in her trailer home in Mexico: “We enter people’s lives for an hour and ask for instant intimacy.”


The Knoxville News Sentinel has apparently managed to avoid the carnage that has devastated many of its brethren. In an upbeat column plainly titled “News Sentinel is NOT going out of business,” Editor Jack McElroy pays homage to owner E.W. Scripps Co. for shrewdly diversifying its revenue stream and not loading up on debt. He also says the News Sentinel wisely diversified into TV and specialty publishing to insulate itself from the newspaper advertising downturn. Critics naturally accuse the paper of selling out to political interests.


The New York Times will launch “Instant Op-Ed” next month in a bid to compete with instant cable television analysis. The Web feature will post immediate expert viewpoints on breaking news, according to Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal.

And Finally…

The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre asked readers to contribute the best line heard in the workplace. They come through with some winners. Our favorite: “Yeah, he thinks he’s God’s gift to sliced bread.”