I hear a lot of people say, when referring to the print edition of The Star: “There’s no news in there anymore,” or, “It’s getting thinner and thinner.”
Both statements are true to a degree, but only one — “it’s getting thinner” — is substantially correct.
Many readers are under the mistaken impression that, because the paper is significantly thinner and lighter (every day except Sunday, that is) it contains a lot less news.
Not so. The paper has definitely shrunk in size, but that’s mainly because so many advertisers have gone away. At the same time, what we in the business call the “news hole” — the space allotted to text, photos and graphics — has not shrunk nearly as much.
In fact, The Star’s news hole has grown appreciably within the last year, since Publisher Tony Berg added the “In Depth” pullout section, which effectively added two full pages to the paper Tuesday through Saturday. (It’s a four-page section, but one of the four is the editorial page and one is the Op-Ed page.)
What has happened in Kansas City has been mirrored around the country. If you haven’t seen the figures, they are jaw dropping…Over the last 15 years, annual newspaper advertising revenue has dropped from $67 billion nationwide to about $16.4 billion, according to the Newspaper Association of America. With that kind of over-the-cliff performance, newspapers could not possibly continue publishing the hefty, healthy products of past years.
For nearly all newspapers, even the great national papers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, prosperity is a thing of the past. Now, a newspaper is considered to be doing pretty well if it is just treading water.
As a reporter and later an assignment editor, I never had to concern myself much with the balance between ads and news hole. I remember that we in the newsroom would complain frequently about the relatively small size of the news hole, due mainly to the large number of ads. If we could have peered into the future, we surely would not have complained.
As I recall, the ratio of advertising space to news hole used to run about 60-40. Now, for many papers, those numbers have flipped, or worse.
In an effort to illustrate this phenomenon, I pulled out my green eyeshade and crunched some numbers relating to two sections of today’s newspaper.
The “A” section — which houses the international, national and local news and the editorial and Op-Ed pages — consists of 14 pages. Each page contains about 200 square inches of space, not counting the margins at top, bottom, left and right.
By my calculations, the A section had 2,065 square inches of news and other editorial material, while advertising (including obituaries, which are paid for) accounted for 735 square inches.
That’s a ratio of 74-26 percent, or nearly three square inches of news hole for every square inch of advertising!!
The story is a little brighter in the sports section, which traditionally has had the highest ratio of advertising. There, the ratio of news hole to advertising was only 2 to 1 (1,350 square inches of news and 650 square inches of advertising).
In a way, we here in Kansas City are lucky that the McClatchy Co., The Star’s owner, is allowing The Star this many print pages per day. There’s an expense associated with each page, and that’s the price McClatchy must pay for the newsprint — the actual paper that runs through the presses.
The news/advertising ratio greatly influences another major factor in newspapers — story lengths.
When The Star was flush and prosperous, as was the case until about the mid-2000s, dozens of reporters were covering all facets of the community, and all were agitating to get their stories in the paper. As a result, editors had to be ever-vigilant about story lengths. I remember a relatively brief period, back around 2000, when the edict came down that no story could exceed 30 column inches.
That is not very much for an important story requiring substantial explanation. The 30-inch limit generated a firestorm of criticism and squawking from reporters — and rightly so, because big stories often require 50 inches or more. That’s especially true of investigative pieces that have been weeks or months in the making. (I recall one former reporter, Rick Alm, demanding that his byline be taken off a story that editors cut down by more than half.)
With The Star now down to fewer than 25 reporters — and having necessarily reduced its coverage area — there’s less need to keep stories short. In fact, the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction: Stories are often way too long. Today, for example, on Page 2, The Star ran a nearly 50-inch long story by Judy Thomas on the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph banning a certain person from diocesan property because he had violated “safe boundaries” in his interactions with children.
It struck me as awfully long before I started it, but I kept reading, thinking it must contain something explosive or the diocese’s action was controversial. But no; there was nothing explosive and no controversy. The man, whom The Star did not identify because he is not charged with any crime, blandly accepted the ban.
Now, Judy Thomas is an excellent reporter, but her editors should have reined her in on that story; it deserved no more than 10 to 12 inches, in my opinion.
Elsewhere in the paper, examples of swollen verbiage can be found almost every day on the editorial page. On the left side, where The Star used to (and presumably will again) run relatively short editorials expressing the paper’s official viewpoint on a variety of issues, The Star has been running 30-inch wire-service pieces that take up two full columns. For the most part, it’s been “filler,” rather than meaningful, relevant commentary.
All this is to show how the newspaper business has been turned upside down, at least as far as the print product is concerned. As I’ve said before, I’m very grateful The Star still publishes a printed edition every day. With each passing day, though, The Star is shifting its emphasis from print to digital, and I’m girding myself for the day when Tony Berg breaks the news that The Star will no longer be publishing on Monday and Tuesday. Those are the days on which the paper is in danger of flying a couple of houses away after leaving the delivery agent’s hand.
I ask you, 20 years ago who could have foreseen the era of the winged paper?