If a big newspaper in a metropolitan area dropped dead right now “nobody under 30 would care.” Mark Potts, news consultant.
Mr. Potts ought to know. He makes his living working for big time newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat. A cottage industry of web sites and consultancies has sprung up dispensing advice and comfort for the traditional news media as it fades into oblivion. There’s even a web site that keeps track of the number of newspaper employee layoffs around the country.
Anxious for a solution, media companies have launched so many quick fixes, re-designs, re-launches, re-positions, cutbacks, flip-flops and fire sales that they now resemble a losing political campaign more that the grand cartels with a license to print money that they once were.
The facts are indisputable. Circulation and readership for printed media are down. Locally, the Union-Tribune is losing circulation at an astonishing rate. Advertising dollars are disappearing faster than free food samples at Whole Foods. And, most importantly, the credibility and influence that the printed news media once wielded have evaporated. You see, while it was all fine and wonderful that some newspapers (and other traditional media) were once profitable, making profits was only part of the deal for media moguls.
The real reason for all this hand wringing over the death of daily newspapers (and the decline of their cousins in the broadcast industry) has to do with influence. The owners of the Copley Press could care less about their format. If they could find a way to maintain what they call their “market share” or “penetration”, they’d print the paper on toilet paper, or switch to CB radio. You betcha.
Optimistically, the Union Tribune’s market now consists of just 8% of the population of the San Diego market. They’d like you to believe that there’s a pass-along rate so their “penetration” extends to 23% of the households in the market. Given that President Bush’s approval numbers are hovering in range (and we’re pretty sure they’re higher in this market), when you consider the U-T’s approval rating (poll-responders finding the paper “very credible”) is running at 15%, it’s easy to understand the atmosphere of fear in Copley-land.
The desperation at the paper has lead to bizarre editorial moves. In a county where the construction industry (a long-time UT collaborator) is all but shut down due to the national financial crisis, they’re actively opposing a school bonds measure (Proposition S) that would pump $1.2 billion into the local economy, with the bulk of that money going directly into construction. Why? Members of the UT’s editorial staff appear to have a personal grudge against the school bond’s political consultant (Larry Remer). He’s made the paper three times (more, if you count blogs) as the primary reason to keep 130,000 San Diego children in sub-standard structures. Hiding themselves behind the rhetoric of concern for any appearance of impropriety, they have placed themselves in opposition to a bond measure that is widely supported. That should do wonders for their credibility in San Diego…but I digress.
Full disclosure: Remer & I were editors at the San Diego Door in the early 1970’s, an underground newspaper that frequently thumbed its nose at the local power-structure and the Union Tribune in particular.
This is the first in a series that will shed some light on the evolution of the news media. Next up: Breaking the Union Tribune (and old media) Habit: Welcome to the New Age of Information.