It warms my heart when newspaper publishers communicate directly with their readers.
And so, when I was in Louisville for Derby Week, I eagerly read a long piece that Arnold Garson, publisher of The Courier-Journal, wrote about the state of daily newspapers. The sub-head of the article, which appeared on the front of the May 2 Forum (opinion) section, was “Newspapers are better off than you may think.”
In an unfortunate and ironic turn of events, the piece was published the day that the Courier was able to print just 40,000 of its “live-run” copies, instead of the scheduled 270,000. All of the pre-printed sections, including the Forum, were published, but the news and sports sections were not delivered until the following day. The disruption made the headline about newspapers being “better off” ring a bit hollow. The afternoon of the debacle, Garson found himself in front of cameras and reporters explaining what had gone wrong, not what was going right.
But that is behind him and The Courier now, and it certainly didn’t puncture the bigger picture that he painted in his article. His points, while specific in many instances to The Courier-Journal, apply to almost all major metropolitan dailies, including The Kansas City Star.
Here are some highlights from the article.
On his paper’s circulation decline:
“The Courier-Journal’s paid circulation decline last year was 8.4 percent daily and 3.8 percent Sunday….We are focusing hard this year on turning the paid-circulation trend line, and we are seeing some progress.”
On the newspaper industry as a whole:
“The newspaper industry is alive and well. Yes, we are changing, and the economic pressures are greater than they used to be. But The Courier-Journal has remained a profitable business throughout this recession. It is a fully viable business now and for the future. In fact, we are much stronger economically today than we were a year ago. Ditto for our parent company, Gannett.”
On some of the business-oriented changes the paper has made:
“It no longer makes sense to deliver newspapers to outlying areas, hundreds of miles from home base, where they are of little value to our advertisers and expensive to distribute. It no longer makes good business sense to use heavily discounted home delivery subscription prices as a tool to drive paid circulation volume. It no longer is realistic to avoid implementing regular price increases for home delivery to partly offset increasing costs.”
On the decline of TV evening news broadcasts:
“Television evening news, long the cash cow of that industry, has experienced a decline in viewers that is deeper and longer-term than the newspaper circulation decline. Of course, the major networks have more news competition than they ever have had. And they, like newspapers, face competition from the Internet. But the public discussion seems all about the future of newspapers, not television.”
On the type of readers that newspapers attract (according to research studies):
“79 percent of adults employed in white-collar jobs read a newspaper.
“82 percent of adults with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more read a newspaper.
“84 percent of college graduates read a newspaper.”
On his paper’s web site:
“Courier-Journal.com is a hugely successful local website with more than 16 million page views and 1.3 million unique users monthly. It is growing, and it is profitable.”
On the likelihood of start-up local websites and blogs replacing newspapers:
“Who would perform the expensive oversight function that guards our democracy against tyranny without newspapers to fill that role? Footnote: The Courier-Journal employs 160 professional journalists, more than all the local TV stations combined.
“Who would challenge the many public officials whose lives generally are more comfortable if they can keep the activities of government secret? Footnote: The Courier-Journal spends $150,000 to $200,000 a year in legal fees to keep this community’s information pipelines open.”
On how the paper has approached financial cutbacks:
“We have been through two rounds of layoffs over the past year and a half. I don’t like that, but most businesses locally and beyond have had to reduce employment during this recession. I do want to point out that we have tried to navigate both of these reductions in ways that minimize the impact on local, hard-news content. We have, for example, spent much more time trying to find ways to reduce staffing in support areas than in core areas, such as news gathering. We have focused our content cutbacks more in features sections as opposed to hard-news sections.”
On the newspapers that have run aground:
“The few newspapers that have failed during this recession have been mostly those that were artificially propped up by joint operating agreements (with competing newspapers), an arrangement devised by the federal government to sustain failing newspapers. The handful of newspaper companies that have gone to bankruptcy reorganization have been those that were heavily burdened with debt. Both of these things were predictable.”
On the future of his paper:
“As I have said before, The Courier-Journal will be here for a long time. It will publish my obituary and yours — but definitely not its own.”