Last Call

The end of the printed newspaper.

The Roanoke Times, the local paper in my family home, is a classic metro daily, with roots that go back to the 1880s. Like most such papers, it ran into trouble in the middle of last decade, as print advertising revenue fell, leaving a hole in the balance sheet that digital advertising couldn’t fill. When the 2008 recession accelerated those problems, the Times’ parent company, Landmark, began looking for a buyer, eventually selling it to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Media Group in 2013. The acquisition was greeted with relief in the newsroom, as Buffett had famously assured the employees at his earlier purchases “Your paper will operate from a position of financial strength.” Three months after acquiring the Times, BH Media fired 31 employees, a bit over a tenth of the workforce.

Many people have lamented the unpredictability in the media environment occasioned by the arrival of digital devices and networks, but the slow implosion of newspapers has been widely and correctly predicted for some time now. Print ad revenues have fallen 65% in a decade, 2013 saw the lowest ever recorded, and 2014 will be worse. Even a company like BH Media, with deep pockets and a long term outlook, can’t make a profit without cutting expenses, and can’t cut expenses without cutting jobs.

What happened in Roanoke — gradual financial decay punctuated by bouts of firing — is the normal case at papers all over the country, and more is coming. The next wave of consolidation is already upon us; big media firms like Tribune and Gannett are abandoning their newspapers (“spinning them off”, in bloodless business parlance.) If you are a journalist at a print publication, your job is in danger. Period. Time to do something about it.

Journalists have been infantilized throughout the last decade, kept in a state of relative ignorance about the firms that employ them. A friend tells a story of reporters being asked the paid print circulation of their own publication. Their guesses ranged from 150,000 to 300,000; the actual figure was 35,000. If a reporter was that uninformed about a business he was covering, he’d be taken off the story.

This cluelessness is not by accident; the people who understand the state of the business often hide that knowledge from the workers. My friend Jay Rosen writes about the media’s “production of innocence” — when covering a contentious issue, they must signal to the readers “We have no idea who’s right.” Among the small pool of journalists reporting on their own industry, there is a related task, the production of ignorance. When the press writes about the current dislocations, they must insist that no one knows what will happen. This pattern shows up whenever the media covers itself. When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”

The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.

Meanwhile, back in the treasurer’s office, have a look at this chart. Do you see anything unclear about the trend line?

Carpe Diem/Mark Perry

Contrary to the contrived ignorance of media reporters, the future of the daily newspaper is one of the few certainties in the current landscape: Most of them are going away, in this decade. (If you work at a paper and you don’t know what’s happened to your own circulation or revenue in the last few years, now might be a good time to ask.) We’re late enough in the process that we can even predict the likely circumstance of its demise.

Pick up a Sunday paper anywhere in this country. It will be the biggest paper that week, stuffed with sections, and with ads. Sunday is the money-maker, when circulation is highest and browsing time most abundant. Sunday is also the day for delivering those pamphlets of coupons and sales touts from from national advertisers like Home Depot and Office Max, Staples and Michael’s.

Those pamphlets — “free-standing inserts” — are now the largest single source of print advertising for many papers. Classifieds have imploded, local display ads are down, and black newsroom humor long ago re-labelled the Obituary column ‘Subscriber Countdown.’

Print ads are essential revenue for most papers. Retail ads are essential for print. Sunday is essential for retail. Inserts are essential for Sundays. The base of that entire inverted pyramid is being supported by the marketing departments of no more than a couple dozen national advertisers.

Those advertisers already have one foot out the door, having abandoned the idea that ads have to be printed inside the paper to reach their audience. CVS and Best Buy have so little connection to the papers they ride along with that they don’t even bother printing the addresses of their local outlets anymore. (You can always find that information online.) From the advertiser’s point of view, the nation’s newspapers have become little more than a blue-bag delivery service, with a horoscope and enough local sports inside to get people to open the bag.

Inserts are one of the last sources of advertising to resist digitization. They are also the next to go. Businesses like Cellfire and Find & Save are working on digital coupons; stores like Kroger’s and Safeway already offer online coupons direct to customers. This digitization is progressing as print circulation decays. Back in Roanoke, the Times was on the market for 5 years before it was bought; in that time the paper lost a quarter of its Sunday readers — 106,000 to 85,000 — and a third of its weekday readers — 96,000 to 65,000. This story too is being repeated all over the country. The print audience continues to defect to mobile, abandon the local paper, or die.

As digital alternatives become attractive while print circulation withers, business will start to shift their money away from inserts. When the inserts go, Sundays won’t prop up the rest of the week. When Sundays turn bad, the presses will become unprofitable. And when the presses become unprofitable, it will trigger the extraordinary costs involved in shrinking or ending the print operation. (If you work at a newspaper chain, ask your treasurer about underfunded pensions. Bring smelling salts.) These costs will torpedo the balance sheet, leading to further mergers, layoffs, reduced delivery days, or outright collapse.

The closing of a local newspaper matters more than the closing of a local shoe store for only one reason — newspapers employ journalists. I asked several reporters, editors, and scholars what journalists should do to get ready for the next wave of firings. There were three strong consensus answers: first, get good at understanding and presenting data. Second, understand how social media can work as a newsroom tool. Third, get whatever newsroom experience you can working in teams, and in launching new things.

The first piece of advice is the most widely discussed in journalism circles — get good with numbers. The old ‘story accompanied by a chart’ was merely data next to journalism; increasingly, the data is the journalism. Nate Silver has changed our sense of political prediction. ProPublica has tied databases to storytelling better than anyone in the country. Homicide Watch can report more murders (all of them, in fact), using fewer people, than the Washington Post. Learning to code is the gold standard, but even taking an online class in statistics and getting good at Google spreadsheets will help. Anything you can do to make yourself more familiar with finding, understanding, and presenting data will set you apart from people you’ll be competing with, whether to keep your current job or get a new one.

Second, learn to use social media tools to find stories and sources. Social media was first absorbed as a marketing tool, but a medium that allows direct access to the public is also a journalistic one. Examples small and large, from photos of a plane landing in the Hudson River to the Guardian’s crowd-sourced analysis of hundreds of thousands of Parliamentary expense reports, rely on a more permeable relationship between the newsroom and the outside world. Practice reading conversations on Facebook and looking at photos on Instagram to look for story ideas; understand how a respectful request for assistance on Twitter or WeChat can bring out key sources or armies of volunteers.

Third, journalism is becoming more of a team sport. Integrated text and visuals, databases the readers can query and annotate themselves, group liveblogging of breaking news — all this requires collaboration far more engaged than the old ‘one story, one byline’ model. Volunteer for (or propose) anything that involves deeper teamwork than you’re used to, and anything that involves experimenting with new tools or techniques. (The irony, of course, is that more news organizations prize teamwork, but still hire individuals. For your next job, you may need to convince your future bosses that you are valuable all by your lonesome, but that part of that value is working well on a team.)

One objection to all this advice is that it is too little, too late, and not nearly enough to save most newsroom employees. This is true. It is also irrelevant. We’re entering what Jim Brady calls the “huddling together for warmth” phase of journalistic enterprise. Some papers will survive, of course, buying time through mergers or Chapter 11, but even those papers will shrink. There will be some work in journalism startups and in non-profits; given the number of people who are going to be fired in the next few years, many newsroom employees will find their next jobs outside anything that looks like a traditional paper. Much of the advice above will be relevant to those jobs as well.

The other objection is that advice to get skilled at data, social media, and teamwork is pitifully obvious. This is also true. All of this advice is obvious, and has been obvious for some time now. What’s astonishing — and disheartening — is how long it’s taken to act on that obvious advice, in part because there are still people committed to the fiction that the future of print is unclear.

There was one other common reaction among the people I spoke with about the coming changes: almost to a person, they noted that journalists can no longer rely on their employers to provide the opportunities to learn new skills. For a long time, professional development as a journalist was a side-effect of rising through the ranks; the paper offers you a new beat, or sends you out to break a career-making story. Today, papers are fighting for survival, and most slowly losing, so there’s hardly time or resources for anything other than “Essential services are being maintained.” If you’re a journalist working inside a newspaper and you want to train for your next job, you’re largely on your own.

It’s tempting to try to find a moral dimension to newspapers’ collapse, but there isn’t one. All that’s happened is advertisers are leaving, classifieds first, inserts last. Business is business; the advertisers never had a stake in keeping the newsroom open in the first place. This disconnection between the business side and the news side was celebrated as a benefit, right up to the moment it became an industry-wide point of failure.

The slow divorce between advertising and editorial is likely to pick up tempo soon. As Dick Tofel of ProPublica often points out, newspaper revenue has been shrinking since 2006, but the American economy has been growing since 2009. Between 1970 and now, the US has averaged only six years between recessions; the current period of growth crossed the six year mark this spring. We are statistically much closer to the next recession than to the last one, and in a recession, ad dollars are the first to go. Many papers will go bankrupt the way Hemingway’s Mike Campbell did: Gradually, and then suddenly.

The death of newspapers is sad, but the threatened loss of journalistic talent is catastrophic. If that’s you, it’s time to learn something outside the production routine of your current job. It will be difficult and annoying, your employer won’t be much help, and it may not even work, but we’re nearing the next great contraction. If you want to get through it, doing almost anything will be better than doing almost nothing.