Press Box

Liposuction for Newspapers

By Jack Shafer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

That high-pitched squealing you hear in the background is the sound of the American newspaper shrinking.

The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer and scores of smaller papers have downsized their staffs in recent months. About 70 newsroom staff members and 100 non-newsroom employees are exiting The Post through the buyout door, according to the paper's June 1 account .

The physical product is shriveling as well. The Wall Street Journal will snip three inches from its width starting in 2007, adopting the liposuctioned profiles of the similarly slimmed-down Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today. The New York Times last week looked into the mirror and contemplated a diet, saying it, too, might reduce page width after having already switch to lighter-weight paper stock.

Newspapers everywhere are chucking stock tables, eliminating such venerable features as horse-racing coverage and their own editorial cartoons, and consolidating or killing sections. For example, the New York Times just axed its Sunday television listings guide and consolidated its Sunday regional sections into one. Much to their distress, newspapers are shedding profitable classified and display advertising. Evaporating circulation , shuttered foreign bureaus, and scaled-back Washington and state capital bureaus complete the miniaturization of the American daily.

If newspapers get any smaller, you'll have to read them with a magnifying glass.

Publicly owned newspapers, most of which are handsomely profitable, blame Wall Street for the dinkification, saying the stock market punishes newspaper companies when their publications don't earn the accustomed 20-plus percent profit margin. Then again, the seeds of the great newspaper decline were planted more than 80 years ago, when radio challenged the newspaper's status as the only mass news, entertainment and advertising medium. Radio immediately cut into the newspaper audience, beginning the long, slow erosion of readership. Ever since, the parade of new media technology -- the car radio, television, the portable radio, cable, the VCR, the Internet, the cellphone, the podcast -- has delivered successive blows to newspapers. (Disclosure: I work for one of the disruptive technologies, Slate magazine on the Web, which is owned by The Washington Post Co.)

Nothing will bring the traditional newspaper back to its post-World War II position of media dominance -- not color printing, not kids' pages, not expanded high school sports coverage, not service journalism, not bingo on Page One. The newspaper habit -- which nearly every American had when it was the only mass medium -- must be learned. But younger potential customers have skipped the lesson and migrated to other media forms for edification and amusement. Newspapers attract fewer eyeballs today and will attract fewer tomorrow.

But the bad news is relative. Slate 's Daniel Gross, writing about the decline of the network newscast audience, notes that advertisers still covet a diminished mass audience in a world where all mass mediums are fracturing. Network newscasts "are going to be dying for a long time, and dying quite profitably," he wrote. The same applies to most newspapers, so save your tears.

Not every newspaper will die an extended, lucrative death. Titles with national advertisers and distribution, such as the New York Times (1.1 million circulation) and USA Today (2.2 million circulation), have natural advantages. Small local papers can survive by burrowing even deeper into their communities. Papers published in growing Sunbelt cities can hitch a ride on the local booms, notes the Wharton School's online business journal , but papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer may collapse. The Inky can't generate the revenue needed to do the sort of ultra-local, street-by-street coverage that will be demanded of small-town newspapers, and its readership would reject something with the worldly cachet of the New York Times.

Newspapers whose readers are as much constituents as they are readers are the best bets to thrive as the industry declines. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times will remain musts for a long time. Luckily for The Post, it should continue to be required reading for government employees, lawyers, lobbyists, other journalists and the new-class types at nongovernment organizations, think tanks and universities. Might one of the Detroit dailies eventually navigate a profitable path out of the decline by focusing more heavily on the auto industry? Perhaps. But it's hard to imagine the Los Angeles Times maintaining anything near its current 850,000 circulation by transforming itself into an entertainment industry and aerospace daily. Who's to say that Southern California wouldn't be better served by several smaller dailies, multiple news sites on the Web and other electronic media?

Whatever you do, don't mistake the decline of newspapers for the decline of journalism. Much of what we're witnessing is the delayed right-sizing of newspapers and newspaper publisher and editor egos in the multimedia age. Many papers, the Los Angeles Times in particular, are still paying for expanding their circulation areas too far beyond their geographic cores. The closure of foreign bureaus and downsizing of Washington offices by newspapers are much lamented by journalists, but how essential are they in an age when any reader can call up on a computer free coverage by the top U.S. dailies and the foreign press?

Like the ailing -- but very much alive -- character prematurely tossed onto the meat wagon in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," newspapers are right to shout, "I'm not dead!" In their dying, the best newspapers are plotting -- and experiencing -- rebirths as multiplatform news companies. They're building out their Web sites, investing in free daily tabloids, partnering more extensively with radio and TV, sending advertiser-supported news to cellphones and frantically devising business models to make the new equation work.

As much as people may have given up the newspaper habit, their appetite for news has become insatiable, news companies are learning. The 1.1 million-circulation New York Times served 25 million unique readers in April via its Web site, according to its own logs. Washingtonpost.com, with 80 percent of its audience outside the D.C. area, has made The Post a national newspaper.

Indeed, Washingtonpost.com now employs an editorial staff of 65 , and the editorial masthead of the Post company's free Express tabloid numbers at least a dozen. These jobs didn't exist 10 years ago, and they just about equal the head count lost in the recent Post buyouts. The changing landscape puts new media in the position of the mortician who said to the corpse, "Sorry, pal, but your dying is my living."

slate.pressbox@gmail.com

Jack Shafer writes about the media for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company