My newspaper’s board of trustees had its annual half-day “retreat” yesterday (or as 30 Rock had it last week in its parody of such events, a “Retreat to Go Forward”). We invited Sam Freedman of the New York Times and Columbia U. journalism school to brief us on the state of the industry, and it wasn’t quite as depressing as you might expect.
While planning the event I shared with Sam my morbid joke that I sometimes feel our paper’s motto should be “a dying medium for a dying people,” which he quickly amended to “an ever-dying medium for an ever-dying people.” That’s a reference to the Jewish historian Simon Rawidowicz, who coined “ever-dying people” to describe the Jews’ propensity for always thinking their generation is the last.
”Ever-dying” implies ”ever-living,” which suggests the Jewish genius for survival. But before we dared talk yesterday of the newspaper industry’s survival, we had to consider the bad news.
Newspapers have been losing readers since the 1970s, thanks initially to challenges from television, but also as a result of the growth of the suburbs. For the next decade or so most responded by chasing their readers to the suburbs, with more service pieces, more specialized reporting, and with the confidence that comes from being the only game in town when it came to display and classified advertising.
Newspapers managed to be profitable despite the readership declines, and even breathed a sigh of relief after what Sam called the first dot-com boom failed to deliver on the promise of its prophets. The Slates and Salons didn’t draw off advertising from the city dailies, and many of the specialty sites crashed and burned.
But the industry was lulled into a false sense of security by the time the second dot-com boom hit. Craig’s List completely undermined the classified ad revenue stream, and from GoogleNews to Facebook to Drudge, the ‘Net drew away all but the most stalwart newspaper readers with an avalanche of free content. None but the most specialized publication was able to charge for its material on line, and on-line advertising hardly compensated for the loss of lucrative print ads.
So we come to today, with newspapers tanking, shedding staff, and in what will probably be a wave of announcements, closing down their print operations altogther. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is now an online-only medium, with a skeleton editorial staff of 20. Others are bound to follow.
Hardest hit in this “enormous bloodbath” are the medium-sized cities and daily newspapers — Philly, Louisville, Cleveland, Newark — forced to cut foreign bureaus, investigative staffs, and specialty beats in a “race to the bottom.” Of course, that only reinforces the readers’ perception that the real action is online.
And who wins? Nobody, exactly, although some will at least survive. That includes the majors — the Journal, the Washington Post, the Times — who will continue to provide content and service that can’t be replicated (deeply sourced political reporting, foreign and cultural reporting, specialized financial news).
And on the other end (and here’s the good news for us) hyperlocal and specialty publications may at least survive, thanks to fewer direct competitors, little attraction (poaching) f rom the “aggregators,” and our specialized “beats.”
Sam also suggested a few “Jewish” reasons why we can allow ourselves to hope. Jews are readers (Sam cited an astounding-if-true statistic that Jews, 2% of the population, buy 20% of all hardcover books). And at least the older ones remain committed to the printed word.
Of course, the demographic wheel is turning. My rule of thumb is this — if you’re not reaching for reading glasses, you’re not reaching for a printed newspaper. (Sam advises kids on his own kids’ high school newspaper, and none of them reads a print newspaper.) Younger readers have no brand loyalty to a publication. And Rss feeds and the like allow them to narrowcast the things they want to read — “taking away the wonderful surprise of stumbling upon something unfamiliar or reading an article for no other reason than it’s interesting or well-written.”
But again, Jewish weeklies like ours may have a leg up on the metro dailies. The day schools are creating a corps of kids committed, at least in theory, to the things we write about.
Survival, then, depends on the answer to the question, “What can we uniquely provide?” Sam applauds the papers that turned to their readers to ask that question — and were able to strike a balance by both leading readers and by being responsible to the things readers were asking for. “The Forward didn’t one day decide that readers were hungry for great enterprise reporting on the Agriprocessors scandal,” said Sam. “They drove that thing.”
There are as many demographic trends working against Judaism as there are against journalism. Kids growing up with only one Jewish parent will not have the same attachment to things Jewish as those in Jewish-Jewish homes, and even there the trend is for less engagement, not more. Between the least engaged and the small but hardy corps of the most engaged, there is the “muddled middle,” who may not be hungry for our traditional subject matter — Israel, denominational news, the Shoa — but are looking for someone to “address a yearning for something that makes them feel Jewish.”
Choose your spots, advised Sam. “It was a mistake when big papers got rid of everything that looked extravagant — the result was bland product that nobody wanted. You need something that feels fresh and special and will get people taking at cocktail parties or over the cholent.”