Tracking the Continued Decline of Newspapers: The Big 10

Being a second-semester senior studying journalism, the newspaper job market is never far from my mind. Sitting in my senior seminar class yesterday the professor asked who, among the 20 or so of us in the class, had secured a job for when we graduated in three months.

Nobody raised their hand.

There are fewer and fewer jobs in journalism left and they’re getting cut all the time. While many of these cuts (especially in McClatchy’s case) are layoffs done to save costs to prevent whole chains from going under, many more of these, especially in the coming months and years, are going to come simply from newspapers ceasing publication altogether.

It appears, for several large regional dailies at least, that day is coming a lot quicker than we might expect.

The Big Lead today linked to an article analyzing which 10 newspapers will follow the Rocky Mountain News next into the abyss. The list from Yahoo’s Wall Street 24/7 blog reads like a Who’s Who among American Newspapers and it’s a pretty tragic thought that these papers, and their sports departments especially, will either go under or cease print publication in the near future. It’s also a list of papers who provide some of the most valuable sports coverage still available in a daily newspaper.

The Boston Globe. The Miami Herald. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The San Francisco Chronicle. The Minneapolic Star-Tribune. The New York Daily News. The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The Philadelphia Daily News. The Chicago Sun-Times. The Detroit News.

Gone. Or at least going web-only.

Now, in my mind, most of these papers have only ever been web-only for me. I’ve never seen half those papers in print, but I’ve read them all online. For those that go web-only I hope it’s enough to save the jobs of the phenomenal sports writers they staff. For those going completely under, it’s a more tragic reality.

The San Francisco Chronicle is likely to go under in the near future, a death staved off temporarily by adjustments to their union’s CBA. The paper that finally broke the steroids information barrier and published Barry Bonds’ grand jury testimony admitting to steroid use is going under. While the reporting in that instance maybe could’ve been better (given the conflicts of interest involved for their sourcing), it’s the type of investigative journalism that anybody who cares about this country, let alone the industry, is desperate to save before it’s too late.

I do see the bright side to all this; that news operations burdened — in truth, immobilized — by incredible debt will finally be able to make the wholesale changes to their business model (e.g. abandoning print and home delivery, reliance on types of advertising, etc.) to stay salient in a changing media world. There are certainly signs of life.

The web operations have become vastly more sophisticated in just the last year. Web operations like ESPN.com, FoxSports.com and Yahoo! Sports are still far ahead of newspaper websites, but you can now get all the sports coverage from your local daily online, often much faster than you can get the same stories in print. Newspapers are integrating video, podcasts, and blogs into their daily work and are starting to push the envelope in terms of the kind of coverage they can offer their readers.

Readers are noticing as well (and becoming more web savvy themselves) and visiting newspaper websites in droves. Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin chronicled this phenomena today in looking at the Newspaper Association of America’s recent release detailing the incredible growth, in both reach and overall page views, that newspaper websites have seen.

As Gillin brings up, I can’t think of another product in history with a greater disconnect between the popularity of its product and the success of its business model.

Now, living in Boston, I live a charmed existence as a fan in terms of the coverage my teams get. The Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox are all national stories at the moment. They’ve all been very successful in recent years and command national attention.

However, who is going to cover the teams that ESPN maybe doesn’t want to commit money and time to covering? There are blogs, sure, and the AP will usually send at least one stringer to most professional games, but that’s hardly enough to satisfy even the casual fan. The Internet may have an unlimited news hole but somebody has got to write all those words and shoot all that video and you just can’t do the job without being in the building when the game is played.

Local coverage of clubs is an overlooked and absolutely invaluable part of sports coverage. ESPN simply can’t fly people to every game, your local networks can’t employ enough journalists, there’s just not enough money. But the appetite for the coverage is there, it’s just the method of delivery that is lacking.

In the end, nobody knows how this is all going to shake out. Truthfully, alot of these big papers are going to have to be forced into adopting a web-only model by ever-shrinking profit margins and growing debt that is going to force them to skirt the line between shuttering their print operation and ceasing publication all together. Old papers will close, new operations will open.

For those that survive, they may find web-only an incredibly rich journalistic medium. And maybe it’ll be a place where a sportswriter can actually go to a game that ends at 10:30, ask all the questions they want to ask and sit down at 11:30 to write an article they’ve had time to actually stop and think about. I’d say that’s  to the current model of a game ending at 10:30 and having to ask the questions and write the article so it can be turned in by 11:15 so some poor guy can design the paper and get it printed, read once, and tossed in a recycling bin.

Unfortunately, though, not all are going to survive and that’s largely going to depend on who is able to scoop up the most print readers into their web operations.  So, dear reader, let the gladiatorial combat for your pageviews begin.

We who are about to die salute you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s