Monday, June 21, 2010

Washington Newspaper Woes a Metaphor on an Anomaly?

Maybe the News Cycle Pedals Too Fast Around the Beltway. Or, Maybe the Buisness Model for Newspapers is Sicker Than We Thought

The recent struggles of The Washington Times have transcended being taken seriously as more than just the scrappy conservative alternative to The Washington Post. Its very survival has been called into question when 60 percent of the editorial staff got the heave-ho last year when the Unification Church grew weary of subsidizing what has never been a going concern.
Not that the Post has had the luxury of gloating. It had its own round of layoffs last year, closed its remaining domestic bureaus, and trimmed staffing from its admirable website. Oh, yeah. It also loses a lot of money.
In this year's first quarter, the newspaper division booked an operating loss of $13.8 million. Yes, that's better than the $53.8 million lost a year earlier. But it's still a big-enough chunk of change that institutional investors won't countenance for long.
And the hits just keep on coming, as the company reported in its earnings release. Daily circulation was off 12.5 percent, with the Sunday numbers dipping 10.4 percent compared to 2009.
In an online chat today, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli admitted that the boffo revenues from the Washington Post Co.'s Kaplan educational division may be keeping the newspaper afloat.
"That's an interesting and hypothetical question," he said, in response to a query about whether the Post would still be in business if not for Kaplan. Brauchli said one look at the financials showed how much the entire company depended on Kaplan, not just his product.
So, what gives D.C.?
Is everyone so crazed down there that they don't have time or inclination to read a paper? Does everybody wake up with a Blackberry pinned to their forehead, so they can start emailing right away and read Mike Allen's Playbook while in their pajamas? Maybe it's the Post's crappy app, not worth the price of admission at $1.99. Or, maybe too many of the right people already know what they need to know before it hits the paper and move on to Roll Call or The Hill.
Sure, the Post is still a potent journalistic force, even if it's been defanged somewhat by newsroom cutbacks. And, no, I don't think as so goes Kaplan, so goes the paper. There are still 562,000 daily copies printed, with another 780,000 every Sunday. That still adds up to a loyal readership.
But if the Kaplan spigot started to trickle rather than gush, you'd see a newspaper that would have no choice but to further compromise its already-less-ambitious vision. And that would be a shame.
Given that Washington is, well, Washington, it's hard to tell whether the Post is caught up in its own circumstances or part of the industry-wide malaise. I suspect it's a combo of both. Either way, it doesn't bode well for those of us who have come to count on the Post as both a watchdog and dutiful chronicler of all that matters in and around the Beltway. Let's hope that interesting and hypothetical question doesn't get a real answer anytime soon.

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