Wednesday, March 04, 2009

When even good papers die

A lot of people have been talking about how newspapers are on their last breath. This is almost certainly the case, which is sad because they still play a vital role and could be relevant again.

Until recently, I thought that newspapers could see the light. I thought they could change their business model, again, and become vital again. But that’s not happening. When big media companies swept in and picked up papers across the country, it was a warning sign of the end. Less and less local coverage and fewer community newspapers meant more homogenous coverage. During the ‘80s and most the ‘90s this was fine. It meant a small community could feel more metropolitan because it was carrying much the same news as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. But, with the proliferation of internet access, that same news was readily available, more quickly online. Now that lack of local coverage is the very thing killing newspapers.

I’ve made this point before. What I’m realizing now though, is that even papers who have a strong, unwavering audience are in trouble. The Army Times Publishing Company, who produce the DoD Times, Army Times, Marine Times, Navy Times and Air Force Times has been feeling the pinch. To avoid layoffs, they’ve recently put their workforce through one-week, non-pay furloughs, rolling through the organization to avoid disrupting production.

The thing is, all the Times publications have a built-in audience of military folks who are always going to be buying their publication. They haven’t suffered the same kind of audience drop that most newspapers have. Perhaps it has to do with the fact they’re owned by Gannett, but this is troubling. If a paper with as strong an audience base as the Army Times can suffer these problems, what newspaper will survive in the long term?

The online incarnations of publications will not keep them afloat. It’s not happening now. If newspapers and magazines fail in their paper incarnation, chances are their online versions will die as well. Or become shadows of their former selves. At least until someone develops a working business model. Money drives communications just like everything else. Information may want to be free but you have to keep in mind what the quality of that information it going to be.

I hope that new media develops into what it promises to be. Media is always going to go where the money is, and for newspapers, right now, that’s to bankruptcy court.

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