August 11, 2003

Newspapers Need More Than a Prayer

Two stories today focus on readership. One offers a lesson for possible better future for newspapers, the other reports numbers foretelling the difficulty of making that future a reality.

Los Angeles Times columnist Tony Dodero tells the story of his minister sermonizing to the gathered flock that they should no judge quickly those who subjected to intense media coverage "whether you get your news from radio, or television, or the Internet."

The minister's list of media woke Dodero from his meditative state. He writes:

"Now wait one darn minute here. Radio, television and the Internet? Who cares about rushing to judgment, I wanted to shout from the pew 'what happened to newspapers?'"

After lamenting current readership numbers, Dodero relates an anecdote about a visit he and other Times staffers made to an L.A. executive who, after airing whatever concerns he had about the Times' coverage, thanked Dodero and the others for coming. Dodero writes:

"Other editors, he said, often won't even give him the time of day. And that's part of our problem. Newspaper editors and reporters historically have been combative or defensive or downright rude when talking to readers with complaints or sources with complaints."

I agree. Newspapers should be as much in the listening business as in the reporting business [ Read: How the New York Times' New Ombudsman Can Succeed ] and while I don't believe the salvation to the readership ailment lies entirely with readers, it is, as Dodero suggests, a good place to start.

Unfortunately, less arrogance and better communication with customers (readers) may not be enough for newspapers.

An Editor & Publisher story today illustrates the industry's misplaced emphasis on revenue over readership (without readership, relevance declines, resulting in fewer readers and, eventually, less revenue).

Under the headline "Sunnier Years Ahead for Newspapers, Forecast Says," the story reports on a projected advertising and circulation spending growth over the next half decade and then offers these conclusions from the forecast:

"The industry's share of ad spending and people's time spent with newspapers will continue their slow decline, however, said Robert J. Broadwater, managing director."

"Circulation remains a huge challenge, though." The rate of circulation decline has slowed, but the forecast attributes the slowdown to the "fact that many of the trailing papers in two-daily markets have already gone under."

"Papers' lack of success to date in expanding successive generations' interest in their product remains a concern, and the emergence of free-circulation commuter papers 'may keep somewhat of a damper on circulation pricing.'"

Smaller revenue share, fewer readers reading less, a generational die-off and competition that's just giving it away. If these are "sunnier years ahead," then the newspaper industry should start praying for rain.

 Los Angeles Times Don't count newspapers out anytime soon
 Editor & Publisher Sunnier Years Ahead for Newspapers, Forecast Says

Posted by Tim Porter at August 11, 2003 09:11 AM