Monday, December 08, 2008

Reality Defeats Tribune

The self-proclaimed World's Greatest Newspaper is in a lot of trouble. And it's not the only one. The news that the Tribune Company has filed bankruptcy would have been shocking just a few years ago, but the journalism business may be even sicker than the automobile industry.

Dead tree media are struggling, no doubt about it. But there may be a model for the future. At least two newspapers, the Capital Times of Madison no longer publishes a newsprint edition but is now strictly an internet publication. Next year the venerable Christian Science Monitor will follow suit.

The bottom line for most newspapers is pretty simple -- they can't recover their costs from what they sell through subscriptions or on the newsstand. The advertising dollars that have long sustained newspapers are not there, especially classified advertising. Advertisers get a lot more bang for their buck from competitors like Google and Craigslist and there's no reason to believe that the trends will turn back to the newspapers' favors.

Conservatives have often argued that the liberal bent of the MSM has hurt it. There may be some truth in that, but the Chicago Tribune historically has been known as the Great Voice of Midwestern Conservatism. Today's Tribune is a lot more liberal than it was when it was calling elections for Thomas Dewey, but it's nowhere near as liberal as the Star Tribune, for example.

Here's the question for conservatives. If conservatives really believe that newspapers would do better if they were conservative, now would be a good time to test the hypothesis. It would be possible for conservatives to pick up a number of media properties for pennies on the dollar these days. I don't sense that any conservative financiers are interested in making such a purchase, though.

The newspaper business may go the way of the typewriter business, but journalism won't go away. The new home of journalism? You're reading a tiny part of it right now.


Right Hook said...

Nice post.

My problem with liberal fishwraps isn't so much that they are liberal but rather that they do not report the news without a discernable bias. Conservative talk radio is up front about its bias, but liberal papers try to portray themselves as reporters of news when they are actually more opinion oriented or attempt to create or shape events.

Newspapers with a conservative slant may do better than those with a liberal one for the same reason that conservative talk radio generally trounces liberal offerings: the demand for the product is greater. "Better", however, is a realtive concept that does not necessarily equate to "good".

I don't think newspapers, other than perhaps a few niche types of local ad-based or entertainment oriented publications, will ever be able to regain their past revenues or circulation. The material, distribution, and labor costs are just not competitive with electronic media which is becoming even more affordable and portable almost daily.

In addition to the cost of production, the content newspapers is often stale before the physical media makes it to the point of sale. Why would people want old news when they can literally get coverage of an event sometimes in mere moments after it has occurred?

Newspapers are following the same path as the pony express, telegraph, typewriter, phonograph, and the dial telephone. It's just a matter of time.

Night Writer said...

Ink, paper and union pressmen, plus the distribution centers and trucks needed to deliver hard copy, plus all the related employee benefits, represents a huge part of a newspaper's overhead that can all be eliminated or greatly reduced with online-only editions. The "papers", though, still have to deal with a public that expects free content and a lot more competition that has been enabled by not having to pour tons of capital into infrastructure. The old newspapers were dominant becuase they had absorbed their sunk costs and anyone trying to start a new competitor in town needed a ton of capital. Now the product isn't the materials but the insight and communication skills of the writers, news-gatherers and editors.