Newpapers Screwed, Part XVII: Why This Former Newspaper Publisher Won’t Buy $16 Subscription


Yesterday, we published an editorial by SAI contributor Alan D. Mutter  arguing that the advent of “Media 3.0” gives Big Media one last chance to avoid extinction.  Today, Alan submits the following letter he received in response from a former newspaper publisher, which he also published on his excellent Reflections of a Newsosaur.  New York Times (NYT), Dow Jones (DJ), McClatchy (MNI), et al, take note.

The following email from a disheartened former newspaper publisher is the most candid and sobering reaction I got to my post on what the traditional media companies must do to respond to the challenges posed by future technological changes.

I don’t subscribe to the newspaper my family sold to a chain in the mid-1990s. While I miss the New York Times crossword puzzle, I finally stopped my subscription, because I really wasn’t interested in reading the generic news that has replaced the community coverage we used to provide.

In more than 30 years of newspaper management, I experienced the transformation described in your white paper on Media 3.0, as we faced increasing competition from direct mail, segmented cable and the myriad of other choices served to advertisers.

But there is one underlying reason why newspapers will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities so well presented in your paper: They simply lack the intellectual capacity…

In the past, they’ve fumbled every opportunity to harness their resources and address the opportunities. There is no empirical evidence that they have changed their ways in the last 15 or 20 years.

In the early 1990s,our newspaper partnered with a small Internet company and began offering our classified ads online. As you can imagine, it was archaic by today’s standards, but it was welcomed by early adopters. A small management team was established to meet with other suburban newspapers in our market to ascertain their interest in aggregating all of our classified ads and offering a market-wide buy.

I’ll always remember the meeting, because the publishers from the other newspapers looked at us as if we were aliens from some other planet. Simply put, they didn’t get it. One of the publishers present at that meeting is now a top executive of the same chain that bought our paper!

While newspapers continue to experience positive cash flow, the current model, as you well know, is imploding. Furthermore, I would question your assertion that they continue to enjoy large audiences.

When we sold our newspaper in 1996, circulation was in excess of 40,000. Today ABC figures indicate that paid circulation is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 21,000. Factor in NIE copies given away for free to schools; 24/7 rack sales, gimmicky aggregation (adding a paid weekly as one-seventh “daily” circulation), and offering subscriptions for less than $20 per year and you can extrapolate the real readership as much less than claimed.

I also question the industry’s marketing capability and its commitment to content-creation resources. In regard to the latter, market forces are redirecting content providers away from newspapers. One only has to look at the pay scale of entry-level reporters to see why qualified journalists are shunning newspapers.

Our family sold our newspaper to the chain, because we were wall-to-wall union; the unions were intransigent and we could not see how we could compete with the lower-cost media competing for the same business. I knew the chain could “get the deal done” when it came to reducing costs. Parenthetically, my family doesn’t miss the death threats I received from disgruntled union activists when we attempted on our own to reduce force (legally, through the contracts, I might add).

Threats aside, cost-cutting is no particular challenge. It’s easy to reduce the workforce, trim back on the roll width, cut outlying circulation, and so forth. I did it several times and I didn’t find it intellectually taxing. The challenge is to make the transition to thinking about content, not newspapers.

Now, we have a situation where an entire new generation is growing up with little, or no, interest in newspapers. Here’s an interesting vignette to prove the point:

Over the years, I have served on several non-profit boards. During a meeting yesterday, a marketing consultant mentioned that traditional media wasn’t driving traffic. . . advertising was placed in all local newspapers but results were disappointing. He suggested to the board that traditional media be cut back and that dollars should be allocated to online venues.

While he wasn’t sure what channels should be used, he knew a change was necessary – especially after he asked his 24-year-old son whether he saw a particular column in our neighbouring metro. “Dad,” his son responded, “I don’t read the paper.”

Now, I don’t read my old paper, either. When the boiler-room crew calls to attempt to lure me back by offering a full year’s subscription for $15.99, I respond by saying that’s still too much for what their product has become. If I don’t read the paper, who will?