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Bad News for Journalism: Newspapers Are Struggling in the Internet Age

the former location of the Chicago Sun-Times
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Chicago Tribune executives won’t be surprised if their coverage of Barack Obama’s history-making inauguration sells out. 

More than a week after the November election, people still lined up in the Tribune lobby to buy a piece of history they could hold in their hands — a copy of the newspaper proclaiming Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. 

Television and radio reporters talked about the run on newspapers as a nod to nostalgia. This is no surprise. It is a scary time for newspapers.

Consider that while news is in hot demand, the Tribune Co. (owner 
of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times — both in the top eight of the highest circulated papers in the country) filed for bankruptcy protection, citing sagging revenues and difficulty managing debt because of the credit crisis. The filing is the biggest flare yet signaling an industry in decline.

Other signals from the last couple of years: The Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times have slashed their staffs and reduced the physical size of their papers by trimming edges and the number of pages. The suburban Chicago Daily Herald has cut salaries, imposed a hiring freeze and, a little more than a year ago, had the first layoffs in the history of the family-owned newspaper. The State Journal-Register in Springfield and the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette have shrunk their news staffs, and the News-Gazette dropped its Springfield bureau. 

Those changes are mirrored nationwide as newspapers struggle with the worst economy since the Depression and deterioration of the model they use to pay for their operations, as commercial and classified advertisers flee to the Internet. Add to that pressure over changes in the way people get their news.

A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in 
Journalism reveals a portrait of the modern-day newspaper: staffing cutbacks, a smaller news hole, less foreign and national news and the collapse of sections covering specific beats such as business. All are the result of tumbling revenues.

How much of the downturn has been caused by the economy versus a shift in how people advertise and get their news is difficult — if not impossible — to determine. 

A pessimist would say that newspapers are on their last legs. But optimistic editors and newspaper experts in Illinois say their business is in transition and that it is a time of opportunity.

“For many years we operated virtually like a monopoly,” says Gerould W. Kern, senior vice president and editor of the Chicago Tribune. “The cost of entry into this business was very high. You had to have a printing press, and few competitors could do that. Now, you can get your news while you are playing Guitar Hero on your Wii. There is tremendous opportunity to be innovative and to seize the moment.” 

Clearly, this is an age of information. News of any kind, from any corner of the world, has never been easier to get through legitimate news gathering organizations or informal blogs, says Rich Gordon, associate professor and director of digital media in education at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “I don’t think the audience for news is shrinking,” he says. “You can make a case that there is more news consumption than ever.”

People want and need the news that has been offered traditionally by newspapers. But how to pay for it? That is the biggest question facing newsrooms in Illinois and across the nation. Newspaper executives are dealing with shrinking staffs, which affects not only the content of their papers but their ability to experiment with new platforms for delivering the news. Do they staff bureaus? Do they arm reporters with video cameras? Do they focus on the web or niche publications aimed at specific audiences like twenty-somethings?

In Illinois, editors are doing all of the above. They have been hit hard by the economy. “I’ve been in the business for 35 years, and this is the toughest climate I’ve ever seen,” says John Lampinen, editor and senior vice president of the privately owned Daily Herald

Falling stock prices of publicly traded companies bear out Lampinen’s assessment. From 2005 to the end of 2007, newspaper shares cumulatively lost 42 percent of their value with that downward trend continuing in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Despite that report, most newspapers remain profitable, just not as profitable as they have been in the past, Gordon says, adding that some newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe have reported they are operating at a loss. “Even those that are profitable today are in danger of becoming unprofitable within the next few years if current trends in ad revenue hold,” Gordon says. “Online advertising revenue is growing but is not making up for the decline in print advertising revenue.”

Classifieds traditionally have made up one-third of newspaper revenue — with the bulk of them coming from businesses now facing economic crisis, such as auto dealers, real estate firms and job placement services, says John Foreman, publisher and president of the News-Gazette. “We’ve seen a real erosion of classifieds in the last year,” he says. “It matters no difference how badly I want to provide news if I don’t have a revenue source to pay the salaries of these reporters.”

Declining revenues led Foreman to close his Springfield bureau. As is the case in all newsrooms, printing and distribution costs are more fixed than the costs of reporters’ salaries. “It’s more expensive to maintain a Statehouse bureau than a local reporter, and I’m not going to sacrifice news closer to home,” Foreman says, adding that he can get state news from the wire service but can’t cover the Champaign school board that way. “Every time we are confronted with the need to reduce editorial resources, we are challenged to do the job that I think is demanded by our constitutional responsibilities. What is the implication of that?”

Foreman isn’t the only editor in Illinois making those tough decisions. The number of reporters in the Illinois Capitol pressroom has dropped, with the Rockford Register Star forgoing its bureau and the Tribune, AP and Small Newspaper Group among others cutting the size of their staffs. “The amount of news on Springfield has gone down,” says Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It is really important for society not to lose the fruits of what good newspaper reporting provides.” 

And that involves important stories looking at serious topics such as education, health care and criminal justice by reporters who know their stuff and are seasoned enough to spot corruption and explain complex issues, says Ronald E. Yates, dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It takes a lot of money and bodies to cover the news. You can’t cover this country by sitting in front of a computer and doing it online,” he says. “It means going out and talking to people. There is no substitute for face-to-face conversations about issues in a substantive way.”

Yates, a former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, worries that world news is being pushed aside. “People all over the world know more about us than we do about them,” he says. “Of all the countries covering the world, we should be doing more of it.” The study by the Pew Research Center shows that Yates is right to worry; editors are focusing more on their own backyards as they have fewer resources. Larger newspapers and those owned by chains seem to be the hardest hit. At their peak, some news-papers in the late 1990s were making as much as 30 percent profit as investors wanted the papers streamlined, Northwestern’s Gordon says. That leaves them more vulnerable today. “Now they are in the unfortunate position of cutting bone and not fat,” Gordon says. 

All newspapers are picking and choosing what to cover. From city councils to townships to mosquito abatement districts, Illinois has more bodies of government than most other states. Providing news for about 80 different suburbs, Daily Herald reporters could spend all their time at government meetings. “With smaller resources, it is a huge challenge to maintain the quantity of news that we are covering,” Lampinen says. “Find a newspaper in the state paying any attention to township government.”

Staff cuts have led newspapers to become creative to provide some coverage cheaply. The Daily Herald has turned to community journalism. Rather than blanket suburban festivals with reporters this year, the paper collected basic information from organizers through questionnaires and then published the information. “Would we do that to find a scandal where festival people are absconding with money? No,” Lampinen says. “But for dates and other information, it was a pretty good tool.” The Tribune also has turned to community journalism by putting out a weekly insert on specific suburbs that is mostly written by public relations staff from businesses and government agencies. 

Newspapers are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Although the State Journal-Register has made staffing cuts, the paper still has its editorial cartoonist, an important asset for Springfield, says Executive Editor Jon Broadbooks. “We’re being judicious, but we haven’t taken core features away from readers,” he says.

To go along with its smaller size, the Chicago Tribune updated its look this fall with a bold redesign that Kern calls more than “just a redecoration.” The paper took research from readers to heart. Kern says he found that people want an emotional and intellectual connection with their newspaper. “We really changed the philosophy of the paper,” he says. “It is grounded in what we’ve learned from readers.” The paper has placed more of an emphasis on enterprise stories and watchdog reporting, along with offering consumers information they can put to use. “We want readers to be excited with their encounter with the newspaper. To be informed, enlightened, provoked and entertained,” Kern says. “We don’t want them to leave here unmoved.” 

And to drive home the Tribune’s commitment to news gathering, the paper added a slogan at the bottom of its flashy, new masthead: “The Midwest’s largest reporting team.”

Because newspapers have the largest teams of news gatherers around, they often drive the news coverage on radio, television and even on the Internet. It is one of the things that may give newspapers staying power. Another is the time readers spend with their newspapers — an average of 400 minutes a month, compared with 40 minutes a month on a newspaper Web site, Gordon says. “You can relax with a newspaper,” Lampinen says. “We all lead these busy, frenetic lives. If you stop and think how you read a newspaper, it becomes a part of your day. It’s the biggest asset that newspapers have and one that we fail to promote.”

Web traffic on the Herald’s site gives executives an idea of what stories are generating the most interest. Not surprisingly, crime stories are popular, but Lampinen says people need to read about issues they might not seek out, such as poverty. There is a danger in giving readers all they want. It is easier for them to avoid stories they should read, says Yates, who refers to those stories as “spinach journalism.” But other experts say there are ways to slip the spinach into publications that readers will like. 

Critics told Jane Hirt, founding editor of RedEye and current managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, that young people didn’t read newspapers. So, she pitched a newspaper for 18- to 30-year-olds who didn’t read them. “It’s how you serve it up,” she says of the Tribune-owned paper. RedEye is heavy on commuter stories and partying and is structured to be read in 20 minutes. But the paper slips in hard news from the Tribune and also delves into more serious issues — covering a serial rapist when other dailies weren’t paying much attention and looking at the effect that bottled water has on the environment. “Even though RedEye is a rollicking good time, it does give good coverage of a more serious nature,” Hirt says. “Readers are hungry for the news that newspapers have.”

RedEye is a success story. After six years, the free paper, which is published six days a week, is turning a profit and has a circulation of 200,000. The Tribune Co. also owns Hoy, the second-largest Spanish-language paper in the United States.

The State Journal-Register publishes monthly papers aimed at seniors and business people. “(Niche publications) all add to the ability to meet and reach readers in the market,” Broadbooks says. “We’re mass media in a market that increasingly is not mass media.”

Newspaper experts say they don’t know what the future looks like for their businesses. In 1975, Yates covered the fall of Saigon with a typewriter and a 35-millimeter camera. Today, newspaper reporters on the other side of the world can scoop television on breaking stories with video and satellite phones. 

The future could be a device like the popular Kindle (a magazine-thin piece of electronic equipment that owners use to read downloaded books) or a special paper with computer chips that will feature news that can be changed and updated. There also is some promise in increasing ad revenue by partnering newspapers with search engines like Yahoo! to connect advertisers with local customers. Yahoo! already has started that endeavor with a newspaper consortium.

It is a time of transition, of uncertainty.

“The industry needs a lot of hope right now,” Lampinen says. “We need to know that we’re going to get through this. We’ve got to remind ourselves that we do good work that has good value. There will always be a place for that.”

If those people in the Tribune lobby had looked up after buying their “Obama wins” paper, they would have noticed that they weren’t just in any old lobby. Known as the Hall of Inscriptions, the soaring space features inspiring quotations by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire and the Tribune’s legendary publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick. 

With any luck, newspapers will be as enduring as McCormick’s words: 
“A newspaper is an institution developed by modern civilization to present the news of the day, to foster commerce and industry, to inform and lead public opinion, and to furnish that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide.”

Kristy Kennedy is a Naperville-based freelance writer.

Illinois Issues, January 2009

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