Why local print newspapers are dying.
by Tom Thorne
The quality of the material produced in these chain newsrooms is akin to a bar tender watering down beer. In the past they served a purpose of getting new journalists exposed to real life, sending them out to cover local stories, doing the tough job of getting the picture of the dead teenager killed in a car crash, and generally learning the editorial process. Before there were journalism schools these newsrooms were the only places to learn the craft and many great journalists cut their teeth in these schools of hard knocks.
At the local level the skeleton editorial staff put out a daily paper where perhaps 15-20 percent of its pages were and remain local stories that originated in the paper’s local newsroom. The economic realities of putting out a daily paper in small town Canada ensured that new journalists learned how their stories would be slashed and compromised by the need for generating advertising revenues. It was a lesson for journalists in Economics 101. It was always a tug and pull. Editorial needs were always second after the advertising department had their needs satisfied. It was an editorial survival of the fittest environment.
Much of the local coverage was often planted by organizations who wanted promotional coverage for their local events and fund raising activities. National centralized newsroom material was regurgitated from Canadian Press, and only rewritten to fit it into the space left after the advertising was placed on the page. It was a grim training for any new journalist.
Websites were not the answer
In their attempt to stem their print edition demise these local papers started websites. They put local material up from and general material from their head office for free surrounding it with about the same percentage of ads as they had in print. Classified ads and death notices were big on the web as they were in print. This was their attempt to go with the web technological flow but there was never enough budget to keep abreast of of technological changes especially at the local level.
Then the management of these chains decided that editorial could be better if more was produced centrally and sent out to the hinterland as a way to save more money on local human editorial costs. This was, in chain management's view, an exciting and innovative use of the new web technology.
One case I know in some detail is typical of the lack of investment made by these chains even when they went to the web. First of all they reluctantly put in a few new computers which had to be shared. The big graphic screen they used for layout was for the advertising department first and for the editorial department second.
They didn’t make any commitment to keeping their software current. One time I tried to send them a photograph and it simply would not work at their end. So I went downtown to see why. They were still using Apple OS 4.5 and I (and everyone else) were by that time using OS10. So going to the web and using computers was severely compromised because the head office would make no local budget available to keep up to date.
Their archaic software ensured that even advertising agencies could not email their ads to them as attachments but had to rely on courier services for late inserts. Advertising had also been centralized at the head office but their planning called for software and computers to last at least five years with no updates.
Lost business to weekly papers
Once each week the same local editorial content appeared in competing weekly newspapers whose bulk was made up by big box store and grocery store flyers that the local paper had lost as its subscription list began to shrink. As a result, there is little need for the print version of our local daily paper even from an advertiser’s point of view.
Even in the pre-web days these local papers were mere shades of national and head office media. The web has heightened what was always a problem with newspaper chains. Recent graduates of journalism schools always cut their teeth in the chain newsrooms all over Canada and the good ones gravitated back to major markets after this sobering training. It was the same for broadcasting graduates who got first jobs in local radio stations.
In a past life in the 1980s, working for TVOntario, I often visited these sparse chain newsrooms across Ontario trying to interest them in the expansion of the TVOntario network transmitters we were building. Chain owners spent as little as possible on local editorial content and the place where the few journalists toiled had all the charm of a Soviet railway station. They had poor morale and so they had very little interest in TVO’s potential impact on their community.
It was a Spartan experience furnished with drab grey metal desks. These dismal places reminded you of the art direction for 1930’s classic journalism movie Front Page. The newsrooms I remember often had grubby peeling paint, poor lighting and heating systems that never worked and dated computers splattered by coffee stains. They were clearly out of town and very much out of touch, which may account more for their decline and demise than anything else.
© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.