Too big

Big city newspapers are in trouble. Witness:

: McClatchy, buying Knight Ridder — for a price that will not make other newspaper companies jump for joy — announced that it is turning around and selling 12 of them, precisely the ones that used to be crown jewels but now are zirconia:

The McClatchy Co., which today said it will buy Knight Ridder Inc., plans to sell 12 of Knight Ridder’s 32 newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and the San Jose Mercury News, saying that those papers don’t fit the company’s longstanding criteria of buying newspapers in growing markets.

Ouch. This says that smaller papers are worth more. I don’t think that will continue to be the case forever; the problems will trickle down. But the problem with big papers is that they’re too big: They try to be all things to all people; they have very high costs; there is no growth in the market and no growth in the business. Not pretty.

: See now the State of the News Media report on big papers:

The species of newspaper that may be most threatened is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century. The top three national newspapers in the U.S. suffered no circulation losses in 2005. The losses at smaller newspapers, in turn, appeared to be modest. It was the big-city metros that suffered the biggest circulation drops and imposed the largest cutbacks in staff. Those big papers are trying to cover far-flung suburbs and national and regional news all at the same time — trying to be one-stop news outlets for large audiences. In part, they are being supplanted by niche publications serving smaller communities and targeted audiences. Yet our content studies suggest the big metros are the news organizations most likely to have the resources and aspirations to act as watchdogs over state, regional and urban institutions, to identify trends, and to define the larger community public square. It is unlikely that small suburban dailies or weeklies will take up that challenge. Moreover, while we see growth in alternative weeklies and the ethnic press, many small suburban dailies have shrunk.

: The bottom line is that the bottom line is looking worse and worse. Big newspapers have to get smaller. The first step in that is cutbacks. Reality.

Last week, the Washington Post announced that they’re cutting 80 newsroom jobs. Some lament this as a kick into the kidneys of journalism. I say it depends on what they cut. There is undoubtedly fat in newspaper organizations.

And there is also fat in the product — stuff that is there only to try to be all things to all people, which just isn’t economical anymore. So the LA Times joins its sister Tribune Company papers as well as papers in Atlanta and Denver cutting back on stock tables and Nikke Finke says (and I have no inside info on this) that the NY Times will do likewise on April 1.

About friggin’ time. The Star Ledger did this in June 2001 and, I’m told, suffered a net loss of circulation of about 25. Yes, 25. Think of all the millions these papers could have saved in the meantime if they’d had the balls to make a decisive decision. But they’re too big. They lumber.

How much more of a wakeup call do they need?

: See also Michael Zielenziger’s piece in the UC-Berkeley alum mag about the diminishing role of newspapers in their communities.