Another major American daily newspaper with a storied past was buried this week, as the funeral knell sounds ever louder for an industry on the verge of becoming extinct.
The Rocky Mountain News ceased publication just weeks shy of its sesquicentennial anniversary, and Denver became the latest city unable to support two daily newspapers. It's a story becoming all too familiar in the business of journalism.
The Hearst Group recently announced that it will close the state of Washington's oldest newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, unless they can find a buyer for the troubled read. The owners of the San Francisco Chronicle have made an almost identical plea. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune have all recently filed for bankruptcy protection, just to keep papers rolling off of the presses.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some 22,000 newspaper employees were sent to the unemployment lines in 2008. The year that has just begun doesn't seem to hold any better news for the industry specializing in delivering it to the masses.
Why are newspapers going the way of the dinosaur? The short answers are technology and Craigslist. Kids today -- and by that I mean just about anyone under the age of 30 -- navigate at a speed much too fast for the pedestrian movement of the old-fashioned daily newspaper. With 24-hour Internet service, instant messaging and texting, waiting for the next day's morning paper is akin to running a 40-yard dash in quicksand.
At least that's what so-called industry forecasters would have you believe, but more about that in a moment.
Craigslist is the other 500-pound gorilla in the room.
Many folks have wrongly operated under the assumption that subscription costs are what have kept newspapers in the black for so many years. The truth is that the bulk of the 50-cent cover price of many daily newspapers is eaten up by the cost of distribution. Loaders, truck drivers, route supervisors and delivery people all have to be taken care of out of that fund. That doesn't even include the person who drives to your home with a paper after your first one blew away in a wind storm.
Traditionally, a newspaper derives its profits from advertising, with the classified section carrying the lion's share of the load. If the average classified ad sold somewhere in the vicinity of $50, and the average daily newspaper held thousands of such ads, it doesn't take a math genius to calculate that tens of thousands of dollars were brought in daily. Cars, puppies and Help Wanted were all licenses to print money in the newspaper trade.
That was before Craig decided to start his list.
Craig Newmark is an Internet icon who believes that the Internet should be free to all users. On his classified ad site, he allows the majority of posters to put up ads for free.
The site's genius is in its simplicity. There aren't even any outside advertisers. There's just a no-nonsense listing of categories and millions upon millions of classified ads. Every major U.S. city, as well as most worldwide, has its own sub-site within the Craigslist universe. The uploaded content at Craigslist has grown like weeds on an unattended lot.
So how can the newspaper business be saved? Well, as you know, I'm a "think outside the box" kind of guy, and I've got a solution to stop even one more daily newspaper from halting the presses for good. However, before I divulge my plan, I think the question of whether newspapers warrant saving needs to be examined.
Many will argue that what is happening to the American newspaper is no different from what happened to horses when Henry Ford came along, radio when television was invented, and cassette tapes when compact discs hit the scene. They'll say newspapers are anachronisms that need to fade into history and take their rightful place next to slide rules and teletypes.
There is no substitute for the look, feel and -- dare I say it -- smell of a printed newspaper. When a paper has been read from front page to back, and a trip to the restroom is necessary to wash the ink from your hands, you're left with a sense of accomplishment. You feel more enlightened and more in step with what is happening in the world outside your door.
Reading a paper online just doesn't present the same experience. Many former residents of the Cataract City read this newspaper online each week. I'll bet most of them wish they could hold the hard copy in their hands and feel what their eyes are seeing.
Pop quiz: How many of you put aside a copy of your newspaper of choice for future generations when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president in U.S. history? I'll bet that paper took up residence with others collected by your family throughout the decades -- ones chronicling such historic events as the end of World War II, the assassination of JFK, the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the devastation of 9/11.
We keep those iconic newspapers not just because they showcase historic events, but because they are time capsules of the way we lived. Reading an old newspaper is like folding back the layers of time and getting a first-hand peek at the way we were.
An online archive can never have the same effect, and to lose the impact of the printed daily newspaper to the whimsy of technology would be a great loss.
How can the owners of newspapers save their industry?
They need to take a page out of the cigarette industry's (underground) playbook and target the children. Kids don't read printed newspapers, and unless they start, soon there won't be any left.
All major dailies should begin to deliver free copies to area junior and senior high schools. Put them in open stands right inside the front doors, just as they do in major hotels. Get the kids used to starting the day with a newspaper.
They should work with each learning institution to incorporate the news stories into the school curriculum. Have teachers quiz kids on current events and award prizes, supplied by the newspaper, to the kids with the best scores.
Newspapers should encourage kids to write letters to the editor and make a point of printing those letters on a priority basis. I was first "published" by the Niagara Gazette when I wrote the editor while in 10th grade. I still remember the thrill of seeing that letter in print and have kept a copy of it all these years. I was hooked as a newspaper reader after that, and today's kids would be as well.
Newspapers should offer all enrolled students in good standing free classified ads. Take a tip from Craig Newmark and give the milk away for free. After the students graduate and start earning income, they'll be more apt to buy ads from an institution that nurtured them in their youth.
Follow these steps, publishers, and I promise you today's kids will have the same view of your paper as a beloved daily necessity that their parents have. Ignore them, and you can begin writing your own obituary, as the Rocky Mountain News did last week.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 3 2009|