Nov 2, 2007
Stop the Presses! Readership Decline Spells Bad News for Newspapers
Newspaper readership has declined every year for the past 20 years, but that decline is starting to accelerate as new and faster ways of getting news to people becomes more available.
In the fall of 2006 U.S. daily newspapers saw their biggest drop in circulation in 15 years when the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that average daily circulation dropped by 2.8 percent during a six-month period that ended Sept. 30, 2006, and circulation for Sunday papers – traditionally the biggest generator of ad income for newspapers - fell by 3.4 percent.
The drop in circulation has launched a vicious cycle and as circulation drops newspapers cannot charge as much for advertising, revenue falls and jobs are cut as newspapers try to cut costs. Ownership of newspapers by a few mega-chains is also having an affect as the newspapers try to turn a profit by cutting costs, but some observers say that bottom line mentality is hurting quality. In Michigan, The Flint Journal, The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press are planning to cut staff with voluntary buyouts. However there may be more layoffs because newspapers are notoriously quiet about personal moves, and some papers are not filling empty jobs.
Phil Jerome - a reporter and editor for more than 30 years who recently retired as the executive editor of Hometown Newspapers that once published community weekly newspapers in Livingston County, South Lyon, Milford, Novi and Northville - said the large newspaper chains have had a negative effect on the quality of journalism. Mega newspaper chain Gannett, which publishes 85 daily newspapers, including USA Today, and nearly 1,000 non-daily publications, purchased Hometown Communications Network in 2004 from former University of Michigan Regent Phil Power. The purchase also included the weekly suburban Observer & Eccentric Newspapers.
“The big chains come in and just look at the bottom line,” Jerome said. “They need to please stockholders, so they cut costs.”
James Wojcik, a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University and a member of the CMU Journalism Hall of Fame said less reporters in the newsroom means less people to spread the workload around to, and the pressure to turn out a large volume of copy can have a negative effect on accuracy.
“Anytime you have less reporters the newsroom does not work as well,” he said. “When you have fewer reporters there is not the same scrutiny and transparency.”
But John K. Hartman, a fellow professor at CMU and an author of two books on USA Today – the most widely read newspaper in the nation, said because there is less advertising the news hole has shrunk; that means there is less of a need to churn out so much copy. Hartman said he sees newspapers, especially daily newspapers, in a state of transition. In the past newspapers made up to 25 percent of their income from subscriptions and single copy sales, but he sees them going to a free model in an effort to get the product into more people’s hands.
“I think when they go to the free model circulation will increase. Young adults will not put 50 cents into a newspaper box but if you give them a free copy they will read it,” he added.
The Internet has also had a significant effect on the industry, and more and more people, especially younger people are getting their news from the Internet, TV or other vehicles. It was not so long ago that almost every household in America subscribed to at least one newspaper but that’s not the case anymore. A recent study said the percentage of Americans who read a paper every day has fallen to just under 35 percent today from around 70 percent in 1972. The drop is even more dramatic for those people under age 30 where just 16 percent read a paper daily. But many people are reading newspapers free of charge online. According to a report by Reuters, a global information and news gathering company, the number of people visiting U.S. newspaper web sites rose 3.7 percent during the quarter that ended on Sept. 30, 2007.
The loss of circulation has meant a drop in jobs, and that has made competition for the fewer jobs keener and driven down wages and benefits.
“The wages are sub par and the benefits are awful,” Jerome said. “If I had to do it all over again I would not go into journalism.”
There are few union newspapers left in Michigan, and those few that remain are feeling the pressure of newsroom cutbacks. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, represented by Detroit Newspaper Guild Local 22, are offering Voluntary Separation Packages for those newsroom employees who are age 50 or above and have been with the paper 10 years or more. Eligible employees will receive two weeks of severance pay and health insurance for every two years of service up to a year’s worth of salary. Management will decide by Nov. 13 what applicants will be offered the package based on job titles and experience. The Flint Journal is offering a similar incentive to cut staff but management is mum about how many jobs it will cut.
“The Free Press said they want to keep the number (of employees) taking the package down to 16 and The Detroit News wants to keep it at six,” said Lou Mleczko, Newspaper Guild President.
Mleczko is having his first go at negotiating a contract with Gannett after it took over operation of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers, and the 40 newsroom employees the Guild represents have been working without a contract since July as concerns over health care have slowed the process.
“It’s not a real concern right now, but it could be a problem if we don’t reach an agreement soon,” he said.
Despite the low pay and benefits CMU professors Wojcik and Hartman said there is no drop-off in students entering the field of journalism. The interest in blogs, online publications and other new media has spurred an interest in both writing and reporting.
“There is still a good deal of interest in journalism,” Hartman said. “There is a much bigger interest in writing, and I think e-mail, texting and other multi-media things are driving that interest.”
Despite growing concerns over the possible death of newspapers most experts see community news and community journalism thriving if they embrace some of the new technologies.
“My philosophy is pretty simple,” Wojcik said. “I think the newspapers that are going to survive are the ones that provide constant updates on what’s going on right in my own backyard.
"If I want to find out what’s going on in Iraq I can tune into any of the 24-hour cable channels that cater to any bias I have. I am concerned if the city council is going to pick up my garbage,” he added.