Guardian column: Newspapers in free fall

Time for the free-fall press to get down to earth

Jeff Jarvis
Monday November 6, 2006
The Guardian

I was gobsmacked to see it put so matter-of-factly: in an article last week reporting that former GE chairman Jack Welch was interested in buying the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company, two Times reporters wrote that the US newspaper industry “appears to be in a free fall”. Even for me – new-media revolutionary and blog triumphalist that I am – those were strong and sobering words. But likely true. The evidence keeps mounting: the latest circulation figures for US papers show their steepest six-month decline in at least 15 years. The Globe is down 6.7% daily and 9.9% on Sundays, making one wonder why Welch would want it and why the Times would not sell it. One of America’s recently mighty newspaper companies, Knight Ridder, has been broken up, and another, Tribune Company, is facing the chop. Industry analysts forecast declining ad revenue. Redundancies are rampant. Hand-wringing is epidemic.

What disturbs me most is not the news, but the news industry’s reaction. Where we should be seeing aggressive, strategic leaps into the future, we instead hear the mournful braying of editorial Eeyores. Dan Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times (circulation down 8%), exhorted American editors at their annual convention to fight back against staff cuts. Howard Kurtz, media critic for CNN and the Washington Post (down 3.3%), echoed the sentiments we hear from most newsrooms when he wrote: “If this erosion continues, it would be bad news for serious journalism, and good news for corrupt politicians.” Kurtz was soon engaged in a conversation-via-links as media critic Jack Shafer complained that editors too often “equate the loss of warm bodies in the newsroom with the end of civilization”.

I blogged that cuts may be good for papers if they force newsrooms to stop wasting money on commodity news, ego and inertia and focus on what makes them valuable: reporting. Kurtz responded that newspapers do, indeed, shelter waste but that only reporters will cover the city hall or investigate the mayor. I pointed to examples of networked journalism – citizens helping to cover their towns or dogging their politicians. This is the discussion that should be going on in the upper reaches of the industry.

Instead, we see task forces of executives and consultants issuing reports that do little to reinvent the business of journalism. The American Press Institute invested $2m in a “Newspaper Next” project with change guru Clayton Christensen that still treats journalism as a printed product rather than as a service and that advocates baby steps, lulling newspapers into thinking they are changing enough for now.

But there is no time to spare. We are in free fall, remember? Further evidence: a trade group reports that the audience for US newspaper websites is up almost a third over last year and, in the latest quarter, they viewed 2.7bn pages online vs. 1.9bn pages in print. This means the public is rushing on to the net way ahead of papers or advertisers. Merrill Lynch analyst Lauren Fine says that online represents 6-7% of newspaper ad revenue and she predicts it will take 30 years for it to reach 50%. I count three mistakes there: she assumes that the business of newspapers won’t shrink in a newly competitive world. She ignores papers’ accelerating fall. And, as Shane Richmond blogs at the Telegraph, “you think we’ll still be printing newspapers in 2036?”

So what should they be doing? I argue that newspapers must set a date soon when they plan past paper and then figure out how to get there – fast. In the meantime, they must take giant steps: In MediaGuardian, former newspaper editor Richard Addis argued that quality papers should give themselves away so they will stop defending the old, paper product and drive their constituencies online. I’ve heard newspaper executives propose selling off printing and distribution operations for similar reasons: it makes you into a pure play in news. You could just give up and dump papers. In the US, corporations have been selling sinking metro papers to locals with big egos and bank accounts. Newsrooms think they’ve been rescued but soon discover that ownership isn’t the issue; see the recently sold Philadelphia Inquirer (down 7.5%), which is still cutting back. Or start afresh: The editor of the Online Journalism Review argues that those local moguls should avoid the legacy and weight of old papers and just start new news operations online. Whatever it is, make it brave and bold and ballsy. It can’t be more frightening than free fall.

· Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at