For more than a decade, advertising, circulation, and news quality in both print and electronic media have been in a downward spiral. That spiral has twin intertwining roots.
The first root is the rise of social media. The complacent and stodgy print media were slow to catch onto the concept and rise of social media and its influence upon a generation that conducts its life by a fusion of smart phones to ears. When owners figured out they needed to have a digital presence, they first gave away content in a desperate bid to keep readers, and then began to charge for it to those who didn’t have subscriptions.
Like their TV cousins—CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC—newspapers became 24/7 operations, with reporters now expected not only to find the stories, do the research, report, and write stories for one edition a day, but also to rewrite and update their stories for the newspaper’s website. It wasn’t long until editors had print reporters take small portable cameras and their cell phones into the field to also transmit visual stories to the newspaper’s copy desk. The result is a diminished quality as reporters now have more work to do in a time frame that keeps increasing, but are working with the same salaries and benefits.
The second root is the Great Recession, which began about December 2007 during the last year of the Bush–Cheney administration when the bubble manipulated by financial institutions, with minimal governmental oversight, finally burst. The recession ended about June 2009, six months into the Obama administration.
For years, media owners had been wallowing in 10–30 percent annual profits, near the top of all industries, didn’t put their income into improving their properties and their news operations, but took the money and increased shareholder returns, thus keeping their own jobs.
With the Great Recession, business cut back on advertising. This led to fewer news pages and then to narrower page sizes as publishers began to cut expenses. The Great Recession also led to readers with less disposable income cancelling their subscriptions. The business model for newspapers is that higher circulation means higher rates for advertising; conversely, lower circulation means publishers charge less per column inch for advertising, leading to less profit. In most newspapers, advertising accounts for about 70–80 percent of revenue.
When profits continued to shrink, owners and their financial staff and analysts, few of whom ever had to chase a story, cut back staff, froze salaries and benefits.
Cutting back staff means that whoever is left not only has to transmit video from the field and rewrite stories for the paper’s website, they are now forced to increase their own productivity to cover stories that the laid-off reporters once covered, and not cover certain stories that should have been covered. Over time, this has led to a decrease in the quality of both reporting and writing, and a decrease in investigative and in-depth reporting, which takes both time and resources.
At one time, newspapers had proofreaders, whose job was to make sure news stories had no spelling and grammar errors. But, to increase profits, publishers eliminated proofreaders, giving their work to the copy desk. Copy editors check reporters’ stories for accuracy, often asking reporters to fill holes in their stories or to verify certain facts. Copy editors also tighten stories, moving sentences and paragraphs to improve readability, flow, and to assure that the most important information isn’t buried somewhere in the middle of the story. Copy editors also delete unnecessary verbiage and news source quotes that don’t add anything to the story. They write the headlines, format reporters’ copy and place it onto the page. Copy editors, along with city editors and managing editors, also decide what stories should get larger headlines and what pages they should go onto to give readers a roadmap of importance.
As publishers began laying off copy editors, the finesse of the copy desk has been replaced by “Shovel Editing”—take a shovel and throw what you have onto the page.
With fewer staff, owners decided that filling what is left of the diminishing news hole, caused by less advertising, is more economical if they use syndicated material—perhaps a feature from several states away now dumped onto a local page but with no local angle, packaged entertainment news that spills the salacious news about some celebrity’s forthcoming divorce, or more press releases, which are barely edited or verified because copy editors are already overworked. Some newspapers have filled their pages with bloated stories about misdemeanors, largely handed to them by police departments and by larger photos of car crashes and check-passing ceremonies that take up space that once would have been used for news stories.
As newspapers began their descent, circulation decreased—partially because other online sources became more prevalent, largely because newspaper content had become soft. Many local newspapers, under the direction of editors willing to stand up for journalistic credibility, have maintained an excellent news operation. But overall, during the past decade, Americans turned to a comedy cable channel, tuned in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for 44 minutes of truth four times a week, and tuned out ink on newsprint.
The economy has rebounded; unemployment is down to 5 percent. The average wage for a newly-minted liberal arts graduate is about $41,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. For a new reporter, it’s about $10,000–$15,000 a year lower, according to a study from the University of Georgia. More important, some of the better graduates of journalism programs are planning for careers in PR, advertising, and other non-news fields.
Profits should be rising for newspaper groups. But, owners still give no or just minimal raises to their editorial staff, and they haven’t replaced the jobs lost during the past decade.
The soul of a newspaper is its newsroom, something many owners say but never believe. While downsizing the newsrooms, owners’ actions have caused a further downsizing in media credibility and have directly led to a downward spiral in the viability of both print and broadcast media.
The solution to stopping the decline is to restore jobs to the newsroom, hire the best reporter–writers and editors, ones who have a broad knowledge of culture and society, pay them decent wages, give them better benefits, give them time to develop, report, and then write in-depth stories. While doing this, owners need to disregard financial experts who throw useless verbiage and skewed statistics that focus solely upon the “bottom line” and how to “maximize profits. They need to stop hiring $500 an hour media consultants, more adept at massaging statistics than in reporting social issues, who claim readers want shorter news stories, shorter columns, flashy graphics, and prefer crime and entertainment stories.
When a solid news product re-emerges, the readers will return. When the circulation increases, so will the advertisers and the revenue.
In a four-decade career in journalism, Dr. Brasch has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, multi-media writer-producer, television writer, and professor of mass communications. He is the author of 20 books, most of which fuse history and contemporary social issues; his most recent book is “Fracking Pennsylvania.” He is also the recipient of more than 200 journalism awards for excellence, including multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, National Society of Newspaper Columnists, National Federation of Press Women, Press Club of Southern California, AP, and the Pennsylvania Press Club.