Jerry Lanson: How City Newspapers Can Survive (or at Least Buy Time)

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It’s starting to feel as though newspapers are the penny candy of my childhood.

What a deal! At least, that is, for their buyers.

First, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought The Boston Globe for a mere $70 million, tens of millions less than he committed to sign second-baseman Dustin Pedroia and just 6 percent of the $1.1 billion The New York Times paid for the paper two decades ago.

Then, on Monday, Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald Graham shocked staff by announcing plans to sell that paper to Amazon founder Jefffrey Bezos, ending eight decades of family ownership. The $250 million price would have been “unthinkably low even a few years ago,” noted The New York Times.

“Some billionaires like cars, yachts and private jets,” wrote Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Others like newspapers.”

It’s a good thing they do.

Around the country plenty of newspapers have shed staff, lost circulation and bled advertising dollars. Last week, The Cleveland Plain Dealer cut a third of its staff and scaled back home delivery.

Penny candy, of course, is a treat of another era. Let’s hope newspapers don’t follow the same path. Their discouraging storyline is familiar. Papers reacted slowly to the Internet. They isolated leaner, younger, hipper web staffs from the main newsroom and, for years, refused to publish the news online first when it broke. They gave away their news online for free. They never quite figured out how to convert advertisers abandoning print to their online operations.

In short, it’s been ugly.

But what of the decade or two to come? Can editors and publishers stop, or at least slow, their death spiral by paying more attention to their product and their audiences? I think there’s plenty they culd try:

1. Cut subscription costs

The Penny Press of the early to mid 19th century has become the $1, $2 or even $2.50 daily of today. Even home delivery costs a fortune, often to receive thinner, less-well-edited newspaper. I love reading papers. But faced with a Boston Globe delivery rate of $52 a month, I’ve cut back to Sundays only and on other days read the paper on the web. (I get a 50-percent-off educator’s rate for The Times, which I still read in print seven days a week.)

Spiraling subscription costs clearly have contributed to sharp circulation declines. The Globe’s daily circulation has dropped 38 percent since 2003 to 245,572, The Times reported. And when circulation drops, so do advertising rates and revenues.

2. Diversify the newsroom

In an increasingly multicultural and multiracial country, this is a no-brainer. But it hasn’t happened. Diverse newsrooms cover diverse communities and find more and more interesting news. I blogged on this a few weeks ago. Here’s the link.

3. Respect your readers (Part I)

Newspapers should never have ended local home delivery. Newspaper boys were a bond to the community. It’s tough to cancel on a kid. Last week, my Times ended on a flower pot one day and in a puddle two days later. We had to air dry it for five hours.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast last fall, newspapers had a chance to gain ground by delivering papers free to the homes of hundreds of thousands who lost power. We didn’t even lose power. But we also didn’t get a Times or Globe for two days, an awful track record in a crisis.

Is there any way in some communities to bring back boys (and girls) on bikes?

4.Respect your readers (Part II)

Instead of tweeting about themselves, reporters should be required to answer a reasonable share of their readers who take the time to comment on articles. Set a minimum — say five comments per article — and respond to them. It will mean a lot to those who take the time to comment to know the reporter is bothering to read what they have to say.

5. Cover news, not snooze

The lead story in Tuesday’s The New York Times? “Amazon’s Founder to Buy The Washington Post.” That was Monday’s news. No newspaper should settle for front-page stories that simply give a bit more detail about yesterday’s announcements. That’s snooze. Instead editors should put a premium on enterprise, original local news, good writing and smart interpretation. Newspapers simply have to stop covering the nuts and bolts of the mayor’s press conference that TV and the AP were all over the night before. It’s a waste of manpower in an era of diminished staffs and it’s a turnoff to readers.

6. Provide insight and perspective

That doesn’t mean papers should ignore that mayor’s press conference. But instead of covering it as news, they need to use it as the context for a piece that provides insight and perspective. That means trusting reporters. Allow them to interpret based on the facts. Don’t force them into tweedledee-tweedledum journalism — the he-said, she-said that relies on sources on different sides of the political aisle.

Any smart reporter knows that objectivity does not mean splitting the difference. It means gathering the facts, placing them in context and making sense of the story. Readers demand that from a medium that’s typically behind everyone else. But many newspapers continue to play it safe, simply settling a day later for more details. It’s not enough.

7. Be absolutely transparent

Newspapers have always had sacred cows. As deputy city editor of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News two decades ago, I recall trying to assign a simple United Way campaign story to ANYONE. We all knew that our publisher was head of the campaign, and that the story reeked of conflict. The assignment ultimately trickled down to some unhappy soul and the story ran either inside or low on the metro front, noting the publisher’s association with the campaign.

It’s one thing, however, to dispatch a United Way puff piece to a far corner of the paper. It’s another to ignore the biggest sports franchise in New England — the Red Sox. Yet John Henry now owns the team and Boston Globe. Not that the kind of overt conflict Globe sports writers will find themselves in daily is new to news.

Ever seen ABC News promote a Disney movie? It shouldn’t without identifying Disney as ABC’s owner.

Let’s hope, at minimum, that The Globe quickly establishes boiler plate language that alerts readers every day that the paper is owned by the Red Sox. And editors will need to challenge owner John Henry anytime he wants to soft-pedal a team controversy. The paper’s credibility hinges on it.

8. Shed your elitist attitude

Any journalist who has tried to free-lance has had to endure the arrogance of big-city editors. Story pitches more often than not are met with silence. Not so much as a “no thanks” comes back.

Readers, too, sense this distain when they call a newsroom with a question or suggestion. To put it mildly, it’s a turnoff.

So listen up journalists. When team’s second basemen earns a lot more than the entire news operation, it’s time to try a little humility. A glimmer of engagement just might hold your impatient audience a decade or two longer.

 

 

 

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