Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”
I’ve experienced those fifteen minutes a few times, but it comes less often these days. So, I was surprised to get a call last week from a reporter for The Washington Post. It seems he had received a number of emails containing a blog post I had written for stateofnewspapers.com the day before.
We spoke for quite a while about the state of newspapers and the future of the new Gannett. It’s no secret I’ve been predicting the merger/buyout for several years, as well as other industry events that seem to have surprised the general public.
As I told Jonathan O’Connell, financial reporter for The Post, it’s not rocket science. Anyone paying attention had to see the GateHouse-Gannett merger coming for years. Gannett has cut their staffs, pages and content, sold their buildings, and basically had no place to turn. GateHouse (New Media Investment Group) has been expanding their nameplates as quickly as possible, while watching its stock value continue to drop. Buying Gannett was a quick way to draw the attention of the media and, hopefully, draw attention away from the significant drop in stock prices which have lost approximately half their value in less than a year (from $15.99 per share in August 2018, to $8.08 as I write this column).
What did I say so revolutionary that it filled three paragraphs in The Washington Post? Trust me, nothing most of you didn’t already know.
Problems began when newspapers began to believe their own headlines roughly a dozen years ago, over-investing in the digital side of the business, and cutting reporting, production values and customer service.
I still work with a lot of papers as a consultant. It holds true that most of the papers I visit who are doing very well financially didn’t make that mistake. Sure, most invested in digital, but not to the detriment of their core product.
Like most folks who don’t work for community newspapers, O’Connell was pleasantly surprised to learn there are thousands of locally-owned community papers out there. He, like most folks I visit with on the subject, seemed to think most papers were part of big groups.
I assured him, backed by data, that most papers aren’t controlled by large national groups. According to my latest survey of newspaper managers, the number of papers owned by large groups is less than 20 percent of total newspapers.
So, what did I tell Jonathan that earned three paragraphs in The Post? I simply told him that most, not all, but most papers are doing fine financially. Most aren’t going out of business or planning to sell to a large national group.
Thankfully, he didn’t take just my word for it. I was glad to see he interviewed Dr. Iris Chyi, University of Texas media-research expert, who concurred that much of the problems the large groups experience come down to over-reliance on digital revenue too soon.
Yes, I’ve gotten some things right over the years. I predicted years ago the Advocate would take over the New Orleans newspaper market, even before they had a paper there, which came to pass with the purchase of The Times-Picayune in May. Some journalists like to dig out my past columns, often long-forgotten, to remind me I had predicted something that has come to pass in the newspaper world.
I appreciate the attention but try to remind folks that it’s not brain surgery. Years ago, I saw newspapers over-investing in the digital side of journalism at the expense of their main products. I used to keynote large newspaper conferences and beg the attendees to quit writing that print was dead, something they effectively convinced their readers and advertisers. I would speak at newspaper conferences and note that most workshops had to do with converting products to digital, wondering where all these newspapers were going to get money once the print revenue disappeared.
Thankfully, as I told Jonathan O’Connell, most newspapers are doing alright. They’re not going out of business any time soon. Some will go out of business, as has been the case as long as there have been newspapers, and new papers will appear.
As I told Jonathan, it didn’t take a keen intellect to see what was happening. It only required taking a step back, refusing to believe popular culture, and studying what was really taking place. I haven’t been alone. Folks like Dr. Chyi at The University of Texas, Al Cross at The University of Kentucky, Tommy Thomason at Texas Christian University, and others have been doing research and sharing their findings for more than a decade.
I simply paid attention.