Accounting for Time

The more business we do, the less time we have to post our views. That’s one of three reasons for the scarcity of recent postings to the business blog section of this website.

The second reason is that I’m drafting a long article about the root of why American newspaper circulation has declined during the past 30 years, why that industry’s efforts to transplant its existing business from print to online won’t save it, what should have been done, and what might still be done in the ruins. I intend this article to go beyond What Newspapers and Their Websites Must Do to Survive, my essay published three years ago this month in Online Journalism Review. I think almost everyone has overlooked the major cause of why newspapers have lost circulation and readership during the past 20 years (which is also a major the reason why most newspapers’ websites after ten years are still read by fewer people and less frequently than the printed editions).

What’s the major cause? Sorry, but I’ll spotlight that in my article, which I hope to publish either late this month or early next month. As food for thought, meanwhile, allow me to list what the major problem is not:

  • The major problem isn’t ownership of newspapers by publicly traded corporations. Wall Street isn’t the problem. Newspaper readership has been steadily declining since the 1960s, well before most American newspapers were became owned by publicly traded companies. The layoffs and cutbacks that such companies are now making wouldn’t be made if readership and circulation were increasing. In other words, the layoffs and cutbacks are in reaction to the problem, not the cause of the problem. Yes, cutting newsroom staff doesn’t help increase readership and circulation, but it isn’t the cause of the decreases in readership and circulation.
  • The major problem isn’t lack of ‘Citizen Journalism.’ It is true that most American newspapers lost touch with their readers and many also ‘talk down’ to the readers who remain. There are many worthwhile ‘citizen journalism’ experiments underway at some American newspapers, and the tools those use can be widely applied throughout the industry. However, American newspapers thrived for centuries without ‘citizen journalism’ and advocates of it should why and what changed.
  • The major problem isn’t print’s lack of interactivity or multimedia. American newspapers thrived for centuries without interactivity or multimedia. Why and what changed?
  • Nor is the major problem newsprint itself. People today aren’t forsaking paper, just what newspaper companies print on it.

I hope my coming article will answer those questions, plus show how American newspapers need to return to what made them thrive for centuries, things the newspapers can do even better now with the new technologies.

Finally, the third reason for the scarcity of recent postings here is that any time my business partner or I blog is unpaid time for us. Unlike many other bloggers elsewhere, neither of us has had a paycheck or salary during the past ten years. We live solely from the net profits of our companies. An hour or so blogging is an hour or so of lost income to us, which can be a costly distraction.

Nevertheless, many people have asked us to continue blogging. So, we’ll continue to try whenever spare moments between business and other writing permits. Here’s what caught our attention online today:

National Journal magazine columnist William Powers believes that, “What the newspaper industry needs right now is a good publicist. Not a ‘vice president for public relations’ or a ‘spokesperson’ who puts out press releases and waits for phone calls. I mean a hard-core, hard-charging publicist like the ones celebrities employ to craft the image and keep the ‘brand’ humming.” Yes, that’s what he thinks it needs. He apparently thinks readership and circulation has been declining because newspapers don’t get enough publicity and need brands that ‘hum’ more. I’m glad he didn’t suggest Tupperware parties, too.

Jack Klunder, the circulation chief of the Los Angeles Times has sent a memo to the newspapers’ employees, “The fact remains there are too many of us with too many reasons for not subscribing. Is it because you don’t care? Is it because you get it at the office? Price? Latimes.com? Regardless of your lame excuse, all of us should be subscribing to our great paper. Why we don’t escapes me.” Perhaps, because they read it at the office?

The Wall Street Journal yesterday reported that its advertising revenues slid ten percent last month, largely because of “weakness in technology, financial, general and classified advertising categories.”

Meanwhile, the Tribune Company, which earlier this month sold its two smallest newspapers (the joint operation of The Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time), announced that, ” we have no current plans to sell additional newspapers.” So said Scott Smith, president of the publishing division of the Chicago-based parent company, in a brief statement. Considering that nobody responded when Tribune put its other newspapers out to bid, Tribune’s plan is no surprise.

I live in Greenwich and know some Greenwich Time staffers socially. They were happy that Tribune sold their newspaper to Gannett Company, which publishes neighboring newspapers. That is, they were happy until Gannett asked all Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate employees to apply for their own jobs. Apparently, Gannett bought the assets of those newspapers, not the company or its employment.

Just as Tribune was selling its smallest newspapers, the Washington Post reported what many of us who have published small newspapers know: “If there’s any good news about the businesses of newspapering these days, it can be found at the industry’s littlest papers, which are doing well even as their bigger brothers founder.”

I may need to hike my consulting fees. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that it’s hired one of my acquaintances, 36 year-old Eric Grilly, as the new president of Philly.com, that newspaper’s online operation. Eric’s departure from the MediaNews Group newspaper chain, where he recently was given a seat on the executive committee and where his father retired as chief operating officer eight months ago, has surprised a lot people in American online news publishing community. More surprising to people was his compensation at MediaNews Group, which Philly.com reported as $346,050 in salary and bonus during 2006.

eMarketer.com is predicting that American online advertisement revenues will increase only 18.9 percent this year, compared to increases of more than 30 percent during each of the past three years. eMarketer predicts it will rebound to 22.1 percent during 2008, but then begin shrinking to to 13 percent annual growth in 2011. MediaPost reports that five other analysis firms (Borrell, Forrester Research, JupiterResearch, Oppenheimer and PricewaterhouseCoopers) predict annual growth slipping into the single digits in the next couple of years, for the first time since the start of the commercial Internet. I keep that in mind whenever I read newspaper trade journal predictions that at the ‘current rate of growth’ online revenues will be able to save the declining print operations. What makes those journals think that the 30 percent growth will continue?

I would have liked to attend the UK Online Publishers Association meeting in London or the World Association of Newspaper’s Digital Winners conference in Oslo this week, but was preparing for a business trip to Central America (which became postponed yesterday).

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