Future of the Press in the USA

Newspapers in the United States Today A Special Report to the Executive Committee of the Inter-American Press Association Milton Coleman, with Liza Gross Asunción, Paraguay March 13, 2009 One editor’s history at one newspaper can in many ways be a metaphor for the state of daily newspapers today in the United States of America. That’s how I will try to fulfill this assignment, with some help from my colleague Liza Gross. She presented some of this information late last year at a conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but could not be here today. I began my career at The Washington Post 32 years and 10 months ago. I arrived in that newsroom on May 12, 1976 as a reporter assigned to cover politics and government in the area’s wealthiest suburban county. It was a heady time to be in a North American newsroom, particularly this newsroom. This was the newsroom that stood steadfastly for a free press. It had defied one U.S. president and published the Pentagon Papers thereby exposing secret Vietnam War policies. And it had defied yet another by telling the nation and the world the secrets of the Watergate scandal. Moreover, there was excitement brewing locally because voters in the predominantly black District of Columbia had elected their first local chief executive in 100 years. It was a golden age for newspapering, and for the news business as well. Washington’s two daily newspapers, The Post and the Washington Star, were unrivaled as the primary sources of news and information for a region of some four million people. The Post was by far the dominant newspaper. Its circulation was growing, and would eventually reach more than 832,000 daily and close to 1.2 million on Sundays. News of and about the nation’s capital seemed to hang on The Post’s every word. The powerful and the powerless clustered outside the empoloyee entrance of the building each night, 90 minutes before midnight, to get copies of the first edition hot off the presses in the basement. On any given weekday, The Post was read in more than half the households in the Washington metropolitan area, and in three of every four on Sundays. Our marketing slogan was simple, bold and believable: “The Washington Post: If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” The Washington Post newspaper produced more revenues than Newsweek magazine, and more than any of the handful of TV stations that were also company properties. The word was that The Post so dominated as a vehicle for retail advertising that it could raise its rates almost at will and advertisers would not hesitate to take money set aside to advertise in The Post’s competitors to subsidize The Post’s higher rates. And something we now call The Internet was but a baby. The Washington Post remains a place where outstanding journalism is done on a regular basis. During the 17 years that the recently retired Leonard Downie Jr. was executive editor of The Post, from 1991-2008, the newspaper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes, including on three occasions the coveted Gold Medal for Public Service, and in almost every possible category. But so many of the other aspects of the news business have changed in the last three decades. Circulation, which peaked in 1993, is down 25 percent daily (623,100) and Sundays (872,700). It continues to decline. Newspapers in the Washington area are holding their audience share as a primary provider of news, about 20 percent. Yet twice as many area residents, more than 40 percent, get their news first from television, not from the newspapers. And the Internet has surpassed newspapers as the second most common news vehicle and slowly but steadily gaining on television. The Washington metropolitan area has grown by more than 50 percent in the last three decades. But much of that growth has been fueled by immigration, and many of the newcomers prefer news in Spanish, Korean or other languages, not English. No one lines up outside our headquarters in downtown Washington to get the newspaper at night these days because it is no longer printed there. We began printing 10 years ago on eight state-of-the-art presses in two plants outside the city. Yet by the end of this year, the newest of those printing plants and the four presses in it will be shut down. The Post’s reach is higher than ever, but not because of the newspaper. More of our journalism is consumed because we finally have a national and international edition in the form of our principal website, washingtonpost.com. We also publish a free commuter newspaper, Express, and a Spanish-language weekly, El Tiempo Latino. And we have several other websites Yet many of the retail advertisers who stoked our coffers in previous years are now out of business. The classified advertising that was such a lifeline as the retailers faded has migrated to the Internet, where rates are lower. The Washington Post Company is now officially “an education and media” company that brings in more than half its annual revenue from the education division. The Washington Post remains a newspaper of great national and international renown. Yet it is not a national newspaper like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today. It is a local newspaper that has prospered by having high market penetration in the metropolitan area it calls home. The print version is barely available more than 50 miles outside the nation’s capital. In that regard, it is more alike than unlike dozens of other U.S. newspapers that are arguably the most endangered species in the current atmosphere—the papers we call “major metros,” above average newspapers in major metropolitan areas. It is in this group, Liza Gross found, that the steeper circulation and revenue declines have occurred, as well as the largest layoffs, perhaps not in proportional terms but definitely in absolute terms. In their heyday, some 15 to 20 years ago, these newspapers enjoyed spectacular profit margins, in many cases higher than 30 percent. Similar to The Post, they sold from 300,000 to 900,000 daily copies and completely dominated the advertising market, with revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. As undisputed leaders of the news agenda, they were respected but also feared by the communities they served. These were the powerful newspapers capable of financing foreign correspondents and healthy Washington bureaus to cover in depth a wide variety of news. All of them have won several prizes, including the most prestigious ones in American journalism. You probably know many of the names: the Star-Ledger in Newark, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Dallas Morning News, The Oregonian, the Baltimore Sun, among others. Much more so than the newspapers in more modest markets and with fewer resources, this was the group with the most possibilities to tackle successfully the tsunami of the conversion to multimedia. This was the group with the money to invest in innovative strategies and with the flexibility, because of its robust staff and access to training, to plan and reinvent processes. The Post is unique in this general class because a single family that closely controls the most important stock owns it. Many others are part of news companies that own papers and other communications properties throughout the United States or are dominant in particular regions of the country. Many have been sold to new owners now reeling with deep debts stemming from purchase prices. So Tribune Company, which sold Newsday and is now said to be considering selling its ownership of the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team along with the ballpark they play in, has filed for bankruptcy protection. McClatchy newspapers bought the Knight-Ridder newspapers then quickly sold several considered least likely to be profitable, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, which also has filed for bankruptcy protection. Still, McClatchy’s stock price has fallen to nearly nothing, and it is said to be considering the sale of the Miami Herald. Fifteen percent of the Herald’s entire workforce is about to be laid off. There also have been reports that the New York Times Co., which owns the Boston Globe, is considering selling its ownership of the Boston Red Sox professional baseball team and the Globe. The San Diego Union Tribune is up for sale. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver is closed, after more than 100 years. The San Francisco Chronicle may be next. Or maybe the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The New York Times sold its brand new office building in the heart of New York City. The dilemma is clear. News organizations are seeing income dwindling and are left with high costs in our two most expensive areas—people and paper. In an effort to get down to a survivable shape, staffs are being decimated and operating costs slashed. Foreign bureaus and even some in the nation’s capital are being pared or closed. Travel budgets are being slashed. Newspapers that only months earlier were considered fierce competitors are sharing news stories with one another, including The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. Now, perhaps you can understand more clearly why last month the American Society of Newspaper Editors cancelled its annual convention planned for Chicago at the end of April. Indeed, nearly every newspaper owner in the United States has decided it no longer will pay for its employees to attend conferences or conventions. Even those journalists who are willing to pay their own expenses are reluctant to spend time at high class hotels and resorts at a time when their colleagues are being laid off, forced to take vacations without pay, losing health benefits or returning from news assignments only to be told at the end of the day that next week they will not have a job. The executive committee of ASNE, of which I am a member, determined that we would lose more money if we held the convention and very few people came—as was likely to be the case—than if we cancelled it. So for the first time in 64 years, the first time since the last year of World War II, and in the midst of a global recession that some fear could be an economic World War III, the top editors of the daily newspapers of the United States of America will not convene. We are witnessing a cyclical change for newspapers and a structural change in the news industry in the United States. Dwindling advertising and circulation no longer can support large and costly news machines whose output in many respects was printed in the leftover space between paid advertisements. At the same time, more and more basic news and information is free and available on demand much sooner than tomorrow morning or even this evening on the way home. Daily newspaper technology allowed us to feed the news to people in one big meal. The new technology is making it increasingly easy for consumers to nibble on the news throughout the day and night, and while doing something else at the same time. Recent studies indicate that Americans on average now spend about 13 minutes per day reading a newspaper. The Washington Post does much better in one respect. Our readers spend 30 minutes per day, a figure that has not changed during the past six years. But the percentage of people in our area who spend any significant time reading any newspaper has declined, from 91 percent in 2002 to 78 percent last year. Newspapers were great intermediaries, and generations relied on us—even waited on us—to be the messengers and interpreters of what was going on. U.S. readers have become less patient and less passive, too. They want to be provoked to think, not told what to think. And then they want to let everyone know what they think, much sooner than in a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed the following day. Governments from the new Obama administration in the White House to governors, mayors and school boards are using the new technology to bypass the traditional news media and communicate directly with their people. Professional sports teams and their owners are asserting more control over the news regarding their teams through their own news staffs, radio stations, blogs and websites as they reduce access and publishing rights by the traditional news media. Home delivery subscriptions, a long-time bedrock of the daily newspaper business in the United States, are becoming less stable as would-be subscribers leave home earlier and earlier to navigate increasingly longer commutes. One newspaper in Detroit has even eliminated home delivery during the week. And in the same way that increased revenue from online advertising has not equaled revenue lost in print advertising, single copy street sales of daily newspapers are proving an unreliable replacement for home-delivered subscriptions. In her presentation in Buenos Aires, Liza listed three major flaws in the response of many major metros, based on visits to newspapers, reading studies and articles and comments from numerous exchanges with media executives. First of all, the leadership did not understand that moving forward, the paper platform could no longer be the pivotal point of a multimedia enterprise. We have moved from a model of a solar system, in which the newspaper is the sun and the other platforms (internet, mobile, radio) are the planets that circle around it, to a model similar to the Olympic rings, where all the platforms are linked and have an equivalent size. The existence of new platforms is acknowledged, but only in a subordinate role. The result is that the organizational changes that are introduced are superficial. To make matters worse, a certain cultural arrogance, the product of occupying for decades a preeminent position, leads to an overestimation of the impact of the measures that are finally adopted, no matter how small. Second, the current leadership does not understand that technology and content are already one and underestimates de importance of the role that adequate systems play in an agile production of journalistic and informational content, like lists and calendars. They have not managed to effectively incorporate technology into the news gathering process. Leaders in newsrooms have been reluctant to spend money to homogenize and coordinate the various technological platforms that operate in a newsroom. Hence, to transfer content from the newspaper system to the Internet tool you generally have to go through 20 manual steps when this could be done automatically. Finally, the process of consolidation of the newspapers and the emergence of public companies traded in the stock exchange have turned out to be a formidable barrier to innovation and reinvention. The shareholders demand sustained games in the short term and the newspaper enterprise, like any other enterprise, must meet this commitment. But to achieve long-term survival in times of extreme readaptation it is necessary to invest in experimentation and to tolerate risk and occasional failure. But change is occurring, nonetheless. The firewalls between online newsrooms and print journalists are crumbling with all deliberate speed. Newsroom managers are on a crash course to create as many multimedia journalists as quickly as they can. Mojos—an acronym for mobile journalists who work out of cars instead of from behind desks—make up anywhere from one third to one half of the news staff at some newspapers. And these and other steps are scrambling to deal with the Internet at the same time that mobile news is taking off. So what does all this portend for the future involvement of US newspapers in the Inter-American Press Association, the second question this committee asked? Two of the best indicators are developments in the two U.S. organizations that are the counterparts of IAPA—the Newspaper Association of America, the trade organization for publishers and those on what we refer to as “the business side,” and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which represents the top editors of daily newspapers. As the incoming vice-president of ASNE, I can speak most easily from that perspective, which I believe offers a credible representation of what is happening in the industry as it affects IAPA. ASNE, like IAPA, gets its financial livelihood primarily from member dues and its annual convention, with programmatic support from foundations—including some of the same foundations that support IAPA. Our membership dues are relatively high and so is the registration fee for our annual convention, not to mention the cost of transportation, room and board for those who attend that Spring meeting. Like IAPA, ASNE expects the newspapers of our officers, board members, committee members and other active members to pay the costs in time, talent and treasure of that activity. In this climate, it is important to understand that most U.S. newspapers are, first of all small and local. At best, they may be involved in regional or state organizations, but anything national is much less attractive or affordable. Some family-owned newspapers have been able to have a sustained involvement in ASNE, and even IAPA. Edward Seaton, a past president of both groups, is a sterling example. Scott Schurz is another, as is Bruce Brugmann. They have been able more or less to indulge their special interest in Latin America with sustained active commitment and involvement. They are a small lot in a group that nevertheless makes up the vast majority of U.S. newspapers. Most of them are not involved with ASNE and likely will not be inclined to join IAPA. A second group is larger newspapers that claim an international dimension for news interests, financial interests or both. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal are examples of this also small group. Over the years, such newspapers have been able to support a cornucopia of extracurricular activities that include supporting a myriad of trade organizations and associations. And a third group consists of those news organizations that have traditionally or recently has significant Latino populations in their readership area. The Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the San Diego Union-Tribune are examples of this group. It is in the latter two groups that IAPA can best expect involvement in the future—those that survive. But this will occur only if the organization offers sufficient benefits to justify the costs of membership. Let me share with you some things that ASNE is doing to try to address the challenges of the new realities. The board has proposed fundamental changes in the makeup of the organization, including changing its name—from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to the American Society of News Editors, meaning editors of news. Criteria for membership in the organization would also change radically if the organization approves new guidelines proposed by the board. Up until now, membership has been limited to directing editors at daily newspapers. The new guidelines open membership to directing editors of newsrooms that publish only online and newspapers that are not dailies. High-level journalism educators also can be members, officers and directors. And the president would have the authority to appoint up to two additional directors to give online operations some immediate say in how the organization runs. These proposals grew out of a desire to add an online presence as quickly as possible, and to reflect changes already taking place in our industry that directly affect ASNE, from bottom to top Secondly, ASNE shaped this year’s convention in Chicago to try to make it shorter, less expensive and more practical. It was also planned to attract more editors from local papers in Illinois and the states immediately surrounding it: Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan. It is easier and cheaper to drive to a convention than to fly to it. Two of the four tracks at the convention were planned to appeal directly to the budgets and interests of smaller operations. One of those tracks would focus exclusively on online journalism and was planned in conjunction with the Online News Association, a group that was formed in the last year of the 20th century. ASNE established lower and special registration fees, and sought to make the convention more attractive to students, educators and vendors. Unfortunately, all of this was not enough to save the convention. But ASNE is not dead—even though in addition to the money it will need to pay out for convention contracts it has broken, it will not take in a significant amount of profit from the convention it had expected to use for ongoing operations. The work goes on. As it does every year, ASNE has selected and announced the winners of its writing and photography awards, some of the most coveted in the United States. The winners will be recognized and honored appropriately, as will be the winner of this year’s ASNE Award for Distinguished Newsroom Leadership. These awards reflect the organization’s core values. As it does every year, ASNE is completing a census of the nation’s newsrooms. Diversity is also one of the organization’s core values. For decades, it has prodded its members to have newsrooms that at all levels reflect the increasingly diverse communities they serve. Many of the seminars, discussions and other presentations planned for the convention will be modified for online participation—at the request of members. ASNE already had begun to use the new technology to do many of the things that traditionally have been done by people traveling from one place to another. Using these advances in this manner makes it easier and less costly for more people to take advantage of what the organization offers. The convention is cancelled, but the ASNE board will meet in Chicago at the same time the convention was to be held. It will be a modest but critical business meeting in a less expensive hotel, entirely during the weekend so its members can be back in their newsrooms—where they belong—on Monday morning. There will be at least two major topics on the agenda. One will be maintaining operations with far less funds, while at the same time continuing programs and issues of which ASNE has for years been the champion—freedom of the press and protection of journalists, high standards of ethics and integrity in our profession and developing across all platforms a next generation of journalists even better than the very good ones already in place. Second, discussions of how the important work of our industry can best be done cooperatively by the many organizations formed over the good years that now together are facing some very bad ones. Martin Luther King once admonished Americans to learn to live together as brothers rather than die together as fools. What was true then would be so wise now. This is no time for chauvinism. It is in that spirit that I can report to you that it seems as though both ASNE and IAPA members want to press ahead and to try to meet simultaneously in San Diego in 2011. Both organizations want it, both organizations need it, each one needs the other, and no democracy can prosper in the Americas without either one. Nevertheless, for the remainder of this year, in these very difficult times, we will need to move forward one step at a time. We need to remember that, as the saying goes, we walk not by what we see ahead of us, but by the faith that we will reach our destination. Yes, it can be done. Thank you, and I would gladly answer any questions you have.