Monday, May 6, 2013

Are Newspapers Dead?

by Bill Holmes

A couple of days ago a guy from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram knocked on my door. He was contacting former Star-Telegram subscribers to ask why they stopped their subscription and try to get them back. I didn't tell him anything he hadn't heard before and I didn't start a new subscription. A couple of months ago the local newspaper carrier had stopped by for the same reason with the same results. The reason these people stopped by was because I dropped my subscription about six months ago or maybe they dropped me.

I've subscribed to the local paper or papers wherever I've lived for most of my life. My parents subscribed to the morning and afternoon papers, remember those, when I was growing up. So you might say I was a dedicated consumer of newspapers. I usually at least looked at every page except classifieds and advertisement inserts. I read most of the sports, front and local sections. I used the coupons in the Sunday paper. The paper was part of my daily life and routine. I even went on a job interview once at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That changed for a couple of reasons in October or November of 2012. One reason is that my subscription ran out and I had forgotten to renew it. One morning there was a bill for one month in the newspaper at my front door. They had delivered the paper for a month after my subscription expired. There was no phone call from the Star-Telegram sales and circulation department or local carrier to ask about renewing. I was debating with myself whether to renew for another year, six months, go month to month or do an electronic subscription. I was also trying to decide whether to continue seven day a week delivery or some lesser schedule. Because I was still undecided, I just paid the bill and figured in a month I'd get another one. Well, a couple of mornings later there was no paper at the door. Again, no follow up from the Star-Telegram. I figured if they really didn't want me as a customer, I could live without them and so I did.

There were other reasons I decided to not renew my subscription or why I was even contemplating it. One was price. Every year there was a price increase, sometimes substantial. That would have been palatable except that the product kept getting smaller and worse at the same time. This was a double whammy, pay more for less. They combined sections, eliminated features, changed the layout, laid off reporters and columnists or didn't replace them when they left and apparently got rid of every proof reader. They also must have forgotten to renew the license for the spell check and grammar check software. Some of the weekday editions were the size of the paper in a small town like Mayberry, not the sixteenth largest US city which is part of the sixth largest metropolitan area (D/FW) in the country. Just as egregious is that every change or downsize was explained as a benefit to the reader. Less coverage was promoted at sleek and more efficient. Dropped features were explained away as outdated or no longer popular although several were brought back because there were so many complaints. I never did see an explanation for the errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, facts or layout. The "continued on page 9" at the bottom of a story often meant "continued in the vicinity of page 9, maybe".  

A second reason was it has become much easier to get the same information through other avenues, particularly the internet. Between TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, RSS feeds, websites, apps and email you can find news and information about almost anything. The question is how do you aggregate and consume that information and are you going to pay for it. Many of the major newspapers have an electronic edition that is the image of the printed paper including advertisements. That edition usually comes with a price. In the Star-Telegram's case a digital subscription is about a third the cost of the paper edition. Most newspapers also have free websites that may have fewer articles, maybe just headlines and summaries, limit the number of articles you can read in a time period  or they delay some articles and columns a day or two. I was already getting much of my news and information from other sources before I dropped the newspaper. Since then, I've found ways to replace all the newspaper content that I am interested in. It took a little effort at first but now it's pretty automatic and more current. I don't have to wait until tomorrow morning to read about something that happened at noon today. I get more in-depth information now if I want it via hyperlinks. I get more diverse slants on the issues. Very importantly, I get more comics that I chose and they are in color every day, not just on Sundays.

Another reason is that the value of other aspects besides news coverage has diminished. The classified ads have been replaced by craigslist, eBay and The advertisements aren't that important as we do more shopping online. The giant stack of glossy inserts on Sundays has gotten less giant and relevant. You don't have to wade through the mattress, automotive, hardware, electronics and grocery inserts to find a sale on shoes. You now go to the Amazon, Zappos or Nike website. If you have ever bought anything from those sites, they probably send you a couple of emails every week informing you about all their deals. I've also found that all those coupons that used to come with the Sunday paper are not as valuable to me for a few reasons. Some grocery stores used to double and triple many of the printed coupons but no longer do. It's pretty easy to get electronic coupons now to download to your computer, phone or tablet. Those coupons can be printed, added to a store loyalty card or scanned right from your phone. There are fewer coupons in the paper and those that are seem to mostly be for pet food, cosmetics, drugs and non-food items or they are for large quantities of the item. I don't have a pet, don't use OTC drugs (except aspirin), don't need 24 rolls of paper towels or five packages of mac & cheese and I stopped using lipstick and mascara years ago. The Star-Telegram also had a customer card that was good for 20% off at certain restaurants and discounts at other businesses and events. The card was for those who had a six month or one year subscription. For a few years it was a good deal. There were a lot of restaurants and good special offers like half price and sometimes free Rangers tickets several times each season. The last year or two the program went downhill. Many restaurants left the program and no new ones were being added. The other discounts were fewer and for less interesting events.

All this added up to my decision to live without the daily printed newspaper. The indifference of the Star-Telegram cemented that decision. If the paper had called me back in September or October I probably would have renewed. If they had offered a better deal I might have stayed. If they had kept delivering the paper I might still be paying month to month. If they had developed their digital editions for Android as well as the iOS version I might have converted to that form of delivery. They didn't do any of that. It's interesting, the guy who stopped by the other day offered me a subscription for half price. I don't know the length of that deal, I didn't ask. It's too late now. He never even mentioned the electronic edition as another cheaper option.

Some of what I've written is specific to my situation and one particular newspaper. I fear though that much of it applies to many other newspapers. I think we need the information local newspapers provide but no longer need the once a day printed delivery method. Somebody needs to cover city hall and the school board and all the other local stories and issues. Coverage by professional reporters with editors, not amateurs with a cell phone a Twitter account and a blog. TV doesn't have the time or inclination to follow a story long term or in-depth. Most newspapers didn't adjust very well to the internet age. They ignored it or were slow to adapt. Many of their first attempts were weak. They couldn't decide between giving their content away for free or charging for it on the web. They didn't know how or how much to charge advertisers. Once they gave content away it was very hard to begin charging for it. The same for very low advertising rates. I think most realize that they are in a fight for there life now, they're just not sure how to stop the bleeding. There are now better newspaper websites and electronic editions. There is better use of social media. Very few have come up with the right business model or the right mix of print and electronic. Are all these efforts too little too late? The golden age of newspapers has past. Will they ever get the younger generations to be customers? They've lost too much influence. An endorsement of a political candidate doesn't mean much these days and certainly can't guarantee election like it once did. Will they be able to survive as smaller and less influential entities? There are no longer many metropolitan afternoon papers. There are very few cities with multiple papers. Many newspapers have folded. I feel sorry for all the reporters, columnists and other employees who have lost their jobs. They are paying for poor management across the industry.

If the newspaper industry lost me as a customer can they survive. Not that I'm important but my demographics are as an older (OK, old), educated, curious, long time and dedicated reader. One in the habit of starting and/or ending the day with a newspaper. I've changed my habits. I don't miss the printed version. After over 40 years of reading a printed newspaper almost daily I no longer do. A bonus is that I no longer have newsprint on my hands, clothes, the refrigerator door or anyplace else. I can also read my tablet in the dark.

One more thing, we need a new name if newspapers don't come in paper form.


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