Monday, June 23, 2008

Time for Newspapers to Prepare for the Inevitable

With Publishers Out of Good Ideas, Maybe It's Time to Kiss The Saturday Paper Goodbye

We all know the newspaper business is bad, but The New York Times today gives us the macro view of just how bad.
Dismal as in ad revenues off about 12 percent this year from 2007's lousy numbers, which themselves were justifiable causes for depression in publishers' suites. And the numbers for May may be off as much as 15 percent.
Meanwhile, it will get harder to make the argument that newspapers are still making money, only less than they used to. The San Francisco Chronicle has long wished it could say that. But the Times reports it's losing about $1 million a week, even though the paper is being put out by a near-skeletal staff that's already made big sacrifices in pay and benefits.
So, where do we go from here? Bankruptcy and defaults are certainly a possibility at some companies. But will they instead go for the nuclear option, and jettison some papers instead?
It's hard to fathom San Francisco being without a major daily paper. But Hearst is not a charity and didn't become a media behemoth bleeding red ink the way Rupert Murdoch does for sport at The New York Post.
Nonetheless, the ripples from the impact of shutting the Chronicle could turn into a media tsunami.
No major publisher wants to be the first to blink and throw in the towel for their print edition. But if Hearst, MediaNews, Tribune or some other company in trouble went that route, others would be less hesitant to follow, regardless of the precedent.
However, I don't think Big Newspaper is ready for that fallout just yet. What you'll likely see first, though, is the end of the daily paper. Saturday print editions could -- and in some markets, should -- become a thing of the past. They're the thinnest and least-read editions of the week. It's one way to trim without turning out the lights in the newsroom.
When I started at The Record in Hackensack, N.J. in 1989, the paper did not publish on Saturdays. That soon changed, however, though the end result was a perfunctory product with shorter, superficial articles to account for a lesser interest in Saturday reading. The Record felt six-day publishing was an anachronism that needed to be eradicated. But if readers were clamoring for a The Record on Saturday, what they got might have prompted them to reconsider.
That was 18 years ago. Now, with readership and profits in sharp decline, maybe it's tiome to revisit that six-day model, not only in New Jersey but the other 49 states as well.
Newspapers with a strong web presence can keep the bulk of their report out there on Saturdays without having to kill any trees or spend a fortune gassing up delivery trucks on a day that offers little R.O.I.
As for those papers that fatten up the Saturday delivery with circulars, those can be moved up to Friday or even back to Sundays, now that those editions -- the supposed cash cows -- have become more gaunt.
It's not that I want newspapers publishing one less day. But it could be the first painful, but necessary step toward ensuring that some newspapers continue to publish at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think we're far more likely to see Monday papers disappear than Saturday papers. At least out West. Why? Advertisers - those who remain - want Saturdays, when people are out shopping. They don't want Mondays, when no one is in their stores. That's why Mondays and Tuesdays are give-away, fire-sale days for advertisers, and tiny papers.