Editorial: The malaise of print journalism

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Marc Andreessen, the distinguished web browser pioneer, once bluntly stated that “newspapers with declining circulations can complain all they want about their readers and even say they have no taste. But (they) will still go out of business over time. A newspaper is not a public trust – it has a business model that either works or doesn’t.” Though Andreessen is notoriously pessimistic about print journalism in the modern age, his conclusion is correct. Globally print news is declining as media shifts toward generally less-profitable digital platforms. Unbound by the freedom of the Internet, news is now instantly generated by traditional and non-traditional sources alike, and it is widely circulated at little cost. Should the print newspaper industry fail to keep pace with technological advancement, it could lose its capability to sustain comprehensive and ethical daily reporting, especially in local markets.
Even the Providence Journal, one of the oldest continuously published daily newspapers in the United States – with four Pulitzer Prizes as a testament to its enduring prominence in Rhode Island – has not been spared from the malaise of print journalism. While the newspaper’s website has been aggressively marketed to raise online edition revenue, it is evident that the steep downward trend in physical subscriptions has left the newspaper limping.
Advertising revenue from print editions, long the bread and butter of the newspaper business, has declined steadily, down nationally to about $20.7 billion in 2011 from $47.4 billion in 2005. Nationwide, in just six years, major news sources have lost more than half of their print ad revenue. In the same span of time, the Journal’s advertising sales plunged more than 60 percent.
An unfortunate consequence of print news decline is the increasing inability of locally significant publications to support their staff. Last week, the Journal revealed that 23 full-time workers – about 5 percent of the staff – were laid off to cut costs. Not two months prior, 11 employees accepted voluntary separation offers. This is part of a broader trend: Rhode Island’s top newspaper eliminated at least one-third of its workforce between 2008 and 2011 alone. Naturally, a diminished staff raises questions about the newspaper’s ability to quickly and accurately deliver local news. Howard Sutton, president and CEO of the paper, emphasized after last week’s announcement that the quality and quantity of content would not be affected, as no reporters or columnists had been let go.
According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Journal’s daily circulation has dropped 7 percent in the past year to 83,733 copies – half of what it was in 2005. Cost-cutting measures can only temporarily shelter reporters and writers from the seismic economic shift. Sooner than later, the number of employees let go will certainly compromise the news quality and breadth.
Unless the Journal and other mid-size regional newspapers can find digital salvation, we may soon face the prospect of losing hundreds of reputable news sources. While the New York Times and Boston Globe can cover the same issues, there is no substitute for a newspaper embedded in the community and aware of local particularities.
Ken Doctor, a leading news industry analyst, claims that digital revenue is “the single growth line for the future.” Therefore, it is extremely troubling to note that the Journal’s digital revenue also declined by 11 percent in the past year. In February the Journal started charging digital readers. An annual online-only subscription costs $208 – same as the Boston Globe and $13 more expensive than the New York Times – but the Journal has found it difficult to find growth in digital ads like its competitors. But to survive, the Journal must find a way to successfully navigate its digital transition. It is only through successful digital advertising and a lowered online pay wall that newspapers can reclaim lost circulation and continue to provide a quality fourth estate.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Daniel Jeon and Annika Lichtenbaum, and its members, Georgia Angell, Sam Choi and Rachel Occhiogrosso. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.