A new book of essays on the decline of English language newspapers – Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? – invited former international editor DAVID BANKS to contribute a chapter explaining the demise of US big city newspapers.
IN THE CHILLY pre-dawn hours of January 17, 1991, two CNN journalists huddled in their overcoats on the roof of the Hotel al-Rashid in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi capital awaiting a US-led blitzkrieg. Six thousand miles east of Baghdad, in Boston, Mass., where Eastern Standard Time ran eight hours behind the small hours darkness of Iraq, British-born Boston Herald editor Ken Chandler was designing the tabloid front of next morning’s newspaper. “Turn up the CNN monitor!” a City Desk voice commanded as the TV screen changed from US anchor to a static library image of night-time Baghdad, accompanied by the gravelly tones of broadcaster Bernard Shaw voicing the biggest breaking story of the new year.
“This is Bernie Shaw. Something is happening outside. … Peter Arnett, join me here. Let’s describe to our viewers what we’re seeing. . . the skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. . . we’re seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky.”
Those historic words and the exclusive live pictorial coverage that soon followed guaranteed Shaw, Arnett and their colleagues top table seats in the foreign correspondents’ Hall of Fame. It was an international scoop that instantly repositioned Ted Turner’s foundling network firmly alongside the USA’s Big Three networks. It also produced a queasy foreboding in the pit of Ken Chandler’s stomach.
“It was about eight o’clock in the evening,” former New York Post editor Chandler recalls, “and as I began to work on page one I realised I would be asking our readers to pay 50 cents next morning to read about something they had seen with their own eyes 12 hours earlier. I knew then we were fucked.”
Broadband, the super-dooper fuel that was to rocket the internet instantly along every Main Street in North America only to be credited with (and blamed for) dealing a mortal blow to the newsprint media, was still ten years distant. In those early Nineties, the World Wide Web limped along on dial-up. According to Chandler, television was first into the bullring and rolling news played the part of picador, whose jabs and thrusts wounded and weakened a doomed media Minotaur.
Four years or so after that ‘Baghdad blitz’ scoop , another old hot metal man – an adversary of Chandler’s from ding-dong Eighties battles between the rival tabloids they had edited in New York City – was falling for the lure of the looming Digital Age. After seven years at the Daily News, ex-editor/publisher Jim Willse had, like most of his peers, flirted with new media but it was not until the mid-Nineties, when he began editing New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, that he really caught the bug.
“I would read half-a-dozen papers every morning but I couldn’t get all of them delivered as early as I wanted so I’d drive into town at 6am and lift what I needed from the bundles sitting in front of the local drugstore (I left money), then bring them home. After a while it dawned on me I could accomplish the same thing without leaving my bed by reading all the papers on my laptop. From that point on, I never again read a physical paper until I got to the office.”
2015: The industry’s worst year
Anecdotal maybe, but in examining the recent deaths of dozens of America’s city newspapers big and small I trust what men like Willse and Chandler feel and believe over the evidence of volumes of spreadsheets charting the decline and fall of print media: I worked for both during my years in New York, they taught me how to be an editor. I share their regard and concern for the survival of readable, honest journalism over any abiding nostalgia for newsprint. I admit, however, some kind of grasp of the figures helps provide a framework for the problem, so the latest report from the Pew Research Centre, which describes itself as ‘a nonpartisan fact tank’, seemed a good place to start.
That majordomo of the media mansion, former Guardian editor Peter Preston, summarised the Pew view of 2015 in an Observer column as possibly ‘the worst year for newspapers since the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath’. Daily US circulation fell by seven per cent, the most since 2010, while advertising revenue at publicly traded newspaper companies fell by eight per cent. There was no hope to be had for the newspapers’ online arms from the digital advertising which had supposedly promised to be the industry’s salvation.
“Almost two-thirds of $60bn in digital advertising spending (65%) went to just five technology companies: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter,” Pew reported. At the same time. overall digital ad revenue FELL by two per cent in 2015.
The same thing is happening around the rest of the English-speaking ‘rich world’, Preston pointed out: digital ads draining away, growth hopes stalled, branding and the importance of running your own website diminishing as Facebook and Google mop up the stories they like, with hardly an ‘own brand’ reporter on the ground. Add to that Pew’s contention ‘most consumers are still reluctant to pay for general news online, particularly in the highly competitive English-speaking world (nine per cent average). Interestingly, twice that number in smaller countries, protected by language, is likely to pay’.
According to Pew, four-in-ten Americans usually get their news online. Digital is second only to TV news as the preferred platform. Nearly twice as many adults (38 per cent) get news online than in print (20 per cent), and while almost all young news seekers turn mostly to the web for their news, older Americans rely heavily on TV. Mobile phone use is increasing fast, even articles of 1,000-plus word length attracting more phone readers than ever before.
Social media, particularly Facebook, is now a common news source. Overall, 62 per cent of US adults get news on social media, and 18 per cent often do so. However, news plays a varying role across the social networking sites studied. Two-thirds of Facebook users (66 per cent) get news on the site, which amounts to 44 per cent of the general population. Nearly as many Twitter users say they get news on Twitter (59 per cent), but due to Twitter’s smaller user base this translates to just nine per cent of the general population. The number of Americans who enjoy reading ‘a lot’ – 51 per cent in a recent Pew poll – has changed little over two decades but a declining proportion does its newspaper reading from newsprint. So many have ‘gone digital’ that in the last ten years the percentage reading a newsprint daily has fallen by 18 points, from 41 to 23 per cent. Somewhat more (38 per cent) say they regularly read a daily newspaper, although this percentage also has declined, from 54 per cent in 2004.
I, too, am a dinosaur
Substantial percentages of the regular readers of leading and even ‘legacy’ newspapers now read them digitally. Currently, 55 per cent of regular New York Times (NYT) readers say they read the paper mostly on a computer or mobile device, as do 48 per cent of regular USA Today and 44 per cent of Wall Street Journal (WSJ) readers.
But let’s get real here. I’m writing a thesis on why America’s big city newspapers are rapidly reiterating the fate of the dinosaur, yet I’m a dinosaur myself: although I worked at executive level on both major New York tabloids I quit that continent in the late Eighties, first for Australia and later the UK’s Daily Mirror editorship. It’s difficult to be a commentator without first-hand experience, and newsprint was still thriving on both sides of the Atlantic and would do so for another ten years after I quit both continents to head Down Under.
So, as any journalist knows, this chapter cannot be an opinion piece, at least it cannot be MY opinion. Therefore, I turned reporter again and sought the views of editor friends who stayed and watched helplessly as the giants of the American newspaper industry fell. What my research turned up was a kind of patchwork conversation between half-a-dozen of us (all men, sadly) which I have stitched together from a series of individual conversations.
LES HINTON’s career with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation spanned more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and executive in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, culminating in his appointment as CEO of Dow Jones in December 2007.
To the question ‘Is news finished as a distributed newsprint product?’ the one-time associate editor of the Boston Herald and editor-in-chief of Star magazine replied: “Whether or not the decline in print is terminal may be an open question but there’s little doubt it is going to continue and the decline is essentially irreversible.
“Print is losing the battle for people’s time and attention because there are so many more vivid and digestible demands upon that time. The distribution of news and information is a pyramid that has been turned on its head. Once, a tiny few (like us) controlled what the mass of people consumed, whether it was daily newspapers or limited spectrum TV. Now the base of the pyramid has been inverted and billions of individuals have an infinite choice of words and images to choose at will. Old style ‘Big Print’ is done for.”
Did JIM WILLSE, former editor of the Star-Ledger and. before that, editor/publisher of the Daily News, agree?
“Yeah, I think daily print is pretty much dead, with a couple of possible exceptions,” he said. “Weeklies that ‘own’ their local markets and have buttressed print with online and national chains like Gannett that are heavy into online and have cut costs by centralising everything from payroll to copy desks. Then, maybe, a couple of the big boys, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
Too much cost, too little revenue
“But even Gannett and the Big Boys won’t keep printing daily indefinitely – there will be a time when the remaining print audience dies off. There might just be enough advertising left to support weekend-only editions. As for all the big metropolitan papers, the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and the New York tabs? Fuhgeddaaboutit!. Too much cost, too little revenue.”
MARTIN DUNN, former editor of UK’s Today newspaper and Willse’s successor at the Daily News, laments that newspapers resolutely refused to imitate TV’s eagerness to plunder rich historic resources which Street Smart Video, the production company he founded, is now doing by inviting newly- redundant print journalists to turn their lifetime of great stories from treasured contacts into TV documentaries.
“The WSJ and NYT and the like are somewhat protected by their status as ‘legacy’ journalism,” he says, adding: “Popular newspapers here have a century and more of resources which they never tapped. They have learned the hardest way that it simply wasn’t and isn’t enough to publish yesterday’s news today.” Dunn’s production company does just that, he says, “using traditional journalism techniques and paying redundant reporters and feature writers to trawl their years of contacts for yarns which we research then turn into television specials.
“When I edited the Daily News we published ‘100 Years of Yankee Stadium’, a six-parter which was a sensational success in terms of sales, sponsorship and ad revenue. That kind of legacy journalism will still sell, even in print,” he insisted
KEN CHANDLER adds: “I disagree with Martin when it comes to ‘legacy’ print journalism. I wish he was right. Manufacture the very finest horse and buggy you like, kitted out with all the bells and whistles, but it won’t sell if consumers have moved on to automobiles. Same with print. . .
“Even the Washington Post and the NYT, who still produce excellent products, will go down without some billionaire philanthropist bailing them out. The WashPo is lucky, they have [new owner] Jeff Bezos. Let’s hope he doesn’t get bored. But metropolitan papers elsewhere are undergoing a slow, painful death.”
Halfway through this series of interviews I took a call from a great friend, MURRAY FORSETER in New York, a more commercially-minded kind of journalist who, until retirement, was editor/publisher of the influential US trade magazine Chain Store Age which keeps an itchy trigger finger on the pulse of America’s biggest advertisers, the retailers.
“Don’t let those ‘fancy Dans’ fool ya,” said Forseter. “It was the loss of advertising from mainstream print to hundreds then thousands of dedicated websites that put paid to newspapers: cars, realty, lonely hearts, job ads. . . it happened almost overnight!”
HINTON: “Agree! The big metropolitan moneymakers were fat and lazy enterprises nourished by vast amounts of classified advertising, up to 70 per cent of total revenue in their heyday. Circulation income would never sustain them, so advertising always mattered more than readers.
“They became dull and self-indulgent, counting their success in Pulitzers more than readership. Cue the advent of low-cost advertising sites and their revenue was screwed, the bosses of these companies lost in the storm, their competitive instincts dulled by years of easy pickings.”
News coverage without journalists: immediate, raw, exciting
BANKS: So we are where we are, is there a future for print? And if not print, what?
CHANDLER: “Newspapers are finished (mostly) because people have lost the habit of buying them. It’s just easier and more convenient to find what you need by staring at a smartphone where the information is up-to-date, not 12 hours old. On my morning commuter train no one under the age of 70 reads a newspaper.”
DUNN: “Newspapers, it seems to me, now want to staff their newsrooms with (young) people on 25 grand a year who can just trawl the web, post stuff online and do a quick rewrite for the following day’s paper. Tragic, it really is. Ken’s right: commuters read cellphones, tablets and just the occasional serious broadsheet. It’s over.”
WILLSE: “A couple of days following the Boston Marathon bombing [April, 2013] cops began a pursuit of suspects after midnight, well past most print deadlines. The chase was followed by Twitter users, including someone in whose backyard one of the suspects hid out. It was news coverage without journalists: immediate, raw, exciting. I remember thinking, this is how big stories are going to be reported from now on.
“I do think microjournalism can help fill the gap, ‘micro’ as in one town or one neighbourhood. Groups of ‘micros’ could put some money in the pot to have someone cover city hall, like a ‘new form’ Associated Press. There are already optimistic examples of such non-profit undertakings in places like Texas, Minneapolis and San Diego and, I hope, with my guys in New Jersey.
“How will we train future journalists? If there are enough really small, online-only newsrooms to augment larger, civic-minded online endeavours like Pro Publica and slimmed-down chains like Gannett, plus a few surviving Big Boys, then maybe there’s a place for a young journalist who still wants to accomplish what we all thought was our goal – finding out things so the public could make informed decisions. But it won’t be in print.”
Last word to LES HINTON: “The extent to which ‘print’ and its associated brands can transmute to digital is still open and, in the case of most publishing companies, highly doubtful. Certainly the old profit margins and monopoly power are gone forever.
“Meanwhile, the average punters who care about the world around them are in clover. The quality may vary but they’ve never had more to choose from topically, geographically, and ideologically. And because of the great idiocy of newspapers around the globe it’s mostly free, although newspapers everywhere, finally, are struggling to change that. As an avid news consumer, I love it!”
THis was an extract from a collection of essays in Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait and published this month by Abramis (£19.
David Banks is a former editor (1992-94) and editorial director (1992-99) of the Daily Mirror and assistant editor of the Sun in the UK, managing editor in New York of both the NY Post and the Daily News, editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph and deputy editor of The Australian. He is now an occasional broadcaster and edits the website <www.voiceofthenorth.net>