Can Newspapers Survive the Web?

    January 4, 2007

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows and you sure don’t have to count circulation figures and ad pages to know that internet has been a disasterous paradigm buster for newspapers in particular and print journalism in general.

Last week’s fire sale of the Minneapolis Star Tribune was only the latest ominous cloud of smoke to rise over the dead wood pile. From New York to Los Angeles and most stops in between, circulation figures are down and print advertising revenue-especially bread and butter local classified income-has plunged as more and more people turn to the web to find houses and jobs and basic services.

Most of the problems faced by newspapers today are the natural products of plain old greed. For many years, newspapers were dominated by founding families and their progeny-the Ochs Sulzbergers, the Chandlers, the descendants of Clarence Barron, the McCormicks in Chicago, the Binghams in Kentucky, the Grahams in Washington. For better or worse, they operated their papers as private feifdoms, usually leaving the editorial decisions to real newspapermen they trusted. Most genuinely believed that newspapers were a public service or public trust with a constitutionally-protected mission to inform the public.

Beginning in 1963, newspapers began going public and the whole public service concept went out the window. Gannett broke the IPO barrier in 1967 with the intent of growing through acquisition and the smell of blood was in the water.

Families at first sold small stakes thinking they could hang onto control and still make a killing. Knight (before it was Knight Ridder) and McClatchy went public to protect family holdings, with the McClatchys even keeping influence over the company through a two-tier system of stocks that kept voting control within the family. But, as the recent experience of both those chains demonstrates, they never reckoned on the demands for ever-growing profits that being a public company entails or how easily younger heirs can be persuaded to go away for money.

In retrospect, going public was a monumentally dumb move on the part of most of the families-all of the big properties were producing plenty of cash to keep the owners in BMWs for the next 200 years. (Interestingly enough, there are rumors that the Sulzbergers want to buy back the public shares of the New York Times.)

Now, confronted by anxious stockholders and a fundamental shift in consumer habits, newspapers face the same challenge that confronted radio in the early 1950s and 60s-to become relevant in a different way or die. In an attempt to redefine itself for what publisher, L. Gordon Crovitz, referred to as “the great change in recent years in how you get news and information. You now get updated throughout the day from many different sources, print and online,” the WSJ unveiled its new look this morning. WSJ 2.0 is a commuter-friendly 20 percent narrower which the paper estimates will save about $18 million in newsprint costs.

It takes a little getting use to but the new print Journal is still the eccentric mixture of great news sections and neanderthal editorial page that it’s always been. I suspect it will do just fine. The Journal is already way ahead of most newspapers in adapting to the online world, having accumulated the largest paid subscription audience of any business journalism site on the web. It’s all those Gannett and Murdoch print properties we have to worry about.


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Jerry Bowles has more than 30 years of varied experience as a writer, editor, marketing consultant, corporate communications director and blogger. For the past 20 years, he has produced and written special supplements on new technologies for a number of magazines, including Forbes, Fortune and Newsweek.