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Time to say goodbye to print newspapers

Even those with printer's ink in our veins need to face e-reality
The P-I globe is still there along with a legacy website, but the newspaper is gone.

The P-I globe is still there along with a legacy website, but the newspaper is gone. Flickr contributor glennharper

I yield to no one in my love of newspapers. After more than four decades of pounding keyboards for various dailies, and, before that, tossing the now long-gone Yonkers, N.Y., Herald Statesman into the bushes and, occasionally, through front windows of subscribers on my newspaper route, a lot of ink has rubbed off on my psyche. But the time has come to say goodbye to the daily newspaper, a delivery system that should have found its place onto the museum shelf a decade ago, when the Internet shouldered its way into the news business.

Like most goodbyes, parting isn’t easy. And like most, the best way is quick and clean. But that isn’t what is happening in my trade. In the news business we like to write about the next best thing, but when it shows up on our doorstep we shift gears into denial and foot-dragging. Take the announcement Feb. 15 by the Post Register, in Idaho Falls, that it is dropping its Monday print paper because of mounting financial pressure.

"In this changing economic environment," Post Register Publisher Roger Plothow wrote in a statement to the Idaho paper’s readers, "businesses that don’t stay nimble will be left in the dust." And then, for a dollop of good news, Plothow said his paper was "moving forward" by installing a state-of-the-art printing press.

Think about that. So many readers and advertisers are bailing out of print that the Post Register can’t afford to publish a newspaper every day. And the paper’s solution: keep publishing — and spend tens of millions of dollars on a new press to crank out more print papers. [Editor's update: see comment from Publisher Plothow below, putting figure for new press at $2.4 million.] That is nimble the way Sonny Liston was a ballerina.

Here in Seattle, a similar sort of lumbering last dance is underway. Since the Hearst Corp. announced that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been losing readers and cash for the last eight years and will stop publishing next month, there have been urgent gatherings of newsies and others — mostly in bars — to discuss how to find someone who will keep the city’s second daily paper alive.

This is honest angst, but misplaced energy. TheP-I died nine years ago, when Hearst, in an effort to save a few million bucks in the short term, agreed to let the Seattle Times compete in the morning market. There's been plenty of strong journalism done at the P-I, no question, but the overall thrust of the paper has been all over the map since then.

First, out-of-town coverage was stopped. Then it was announced that the paper would cover only local hard news. Then came sporadic national projects and a flotilla of blogs about everything under the sun. The nervous little stabs at Stranger-like snarkiness didn't work either. Meanwhile, the P-I’s readership, a devoted but dwindling lot, kept dying or moving away, and the new people neither remember, nor give a fig about, great P-I staffers of the past like Emmett Watson and Tom Robbins.

Nor have things worked out much better for the Seattle Times. It too is dying, just a bit more slowly. The Times newsroom staff has been halved, the paper's size cut down, and its reporting reach curtailed. One of its owners, McClatchy Co., is drowning in debt. Its other owner, the Blethen family, is desperately trying to stave off the bankers by tossing assets off the sled.

Likely as not, in the next few months the Times will issue an announcement that, like the Post Register, it won’t be publishing a print edition every day. And like the Post Register’s Plothow, some Times suit will pronounce that the paper is making "hard but necessary decisions to ensure we continue to thrive during down times."

Don’t believe it. Print newspapers will never thrive again; the down times tipped over into real time for print years ago. Seattle may yet have smart, comprehensive news coverage, but it will arrive in bits and bytes, in an e-paper not ink-on-paper.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I can't disagree; this is where I see things headed. At the same time, I fear for our communities when it finally happens. Part of the "yarn" that knits together the community is to be found in the little newspaper details about bake sales, ballet recitals, public meetings, and the ephemera of daily life. What happens to that when the paper is gone?

debbalee

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

As one of those ink-stained wretches at the P-I, I too will be sad to see the printed paper disappear. But, you're right: The time has come. It's not feasible to keep printing and distributing the news on paper. The costs are too high and the revenue just won't support it.

We have to get past our romantic visions and face reality. The main thing is to find a way to support good journalism. The transition will be bumpy but, where there's a demand for the product (news), a solution will be found.

Prospero

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

I believe that is Sonny Liston you referred to. Don't blogs have editors? ;-)

werlini

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

It is good to be hard-nosed but here's the thing. Journalism cannot be fully equated with manufacturing widgets. Flat screens come along and the old TV sets are obsolete. Factories retool, some companies go under, that's the market.

However, journalism, the fourth estate, is both a business AND a public function. As all the newspapers decline, websites (including this one) have not shown the ability to replace the investigative reporting function of the printed press. This is a very scary thing for our democracy.

I am skeptical we can just rely on the market to find a timely solution to this problem - and because of the public function of journalism - it is a far from a satisfactory answer.

bjorn

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

If "newspapers" are really going to survive, then it seems like what they ALL need to do is start charge a fee to view their websites. AND not allowing other "para-sites" to steal their content without paying for it. The Huffington Post, Drudge, etc. wouldn't last a week if all their links to actual newsgathering organizations were locked out with a subscription fee.

stan

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 2:37 p.m. Inappropriate

You sound like you've learned better, Bill, but I doubt it. The trouble with us news hacks is that we never learn. My first paper was the Los Angeles Herald. Delivered it in a Long Beach suburb in 1948. It died. Next came the San Diego Daily Journal in 1950. It died. So I went into journalism. How dumb is that? I'd still go back.

Swack

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 2:57 p.m. Inappropriate

You are an idiot and a traitor.
It's people like you who are cannibalizing newspapers, cutting and pasting or copying things from real journalists' stories and putting them in yours, sometimes without any attribution whatsoever. That isn't called progress or technology. It's plagiarism.
And it's a mistake to write about local news? That's what people want.
If you ever were a real reporter, you would never say that newspapers should die. How would the organization you work for even exist if it weren't for newspapers?
Again, you're an idiot.

katsnews

Posted Wed, Feb 18, 6:14 p.m. Inappropriate

The old newspaper business model is outdated and obsolete, just like network television. The transition is still occurring but whatever remains when the dust settles will be better than the current situation.

Posted Thu, Feb 19, 1:30 a.m. Inappropriate

The time has come to say goodbye to Bill Richards.

dj

Posted Thu, Feb 19, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Good journalists check their facts before publishing a story. Is this piece another example of why blogging won't replace real journalism?

"...tens of millions of dollars..." for a new press? We're spending $2.4 million for our new press. Because we were able to negotiate favorable terms, our payments will be about $15,000 a month. Thanks to lower waste and the ability to print slightly smaller pages with less ink and labor, we'll save between $25,000 and $30,000 a month -- a net positive cash flow of at least $10,000 a month. Even if it's true (it probably is) that print journalism reached its peak 10 years ago, it'll be another 20 or more before printing presses become entirely obsolete. In the meantime, good businesses will master the transition between print and whatever comes next, including digital.

What's called for is a nuanced and sophisticated discussion, not one that misstates facts and presumes to provide simplistic solutions.

Roger Plothow
Editor and Publisher
Post Register, Idaho Falls, ID

rplothow

Posted Thu, Feb 19, 6:36 p.m. Inappropriate

In Post Falls it may be 20 years before the presses become obsolete. In Seattle, I feare the day is upon us.

Prospero

Posted Thu, Feb 19, 9:55 p.m. Inappropriate

It is upon us, and I for one am tired of newspapers whining about their crucial role in our democracy. Print news is noncompetitive legacy media and our democracy will survive its demise. I'm just waiting for the first proposals that the government bails out the newspapers.

Posted Sat, Feb 21, 9:40 a.m. Inappropriate

My congratulations to Mr. Plothow and the Post Register for their new press. And for getting favorable terms from your lender. Such a deal. But I think you are proving the point. With your circulation, ad revenue and cash flow dropping, boasting about your savings on operating expenses is a little like telling people about the great buy you got on a new suit while the bank is foreclosing on your house. But good luck.

richards

Posted Sat, Feb 21, 1:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Eesh. Forgive me, Mr. Richards, but you are just bound and determined to get your point across, all facts notwithstanding. You don't even acknowledge that you overestimated the cost of our press by a factor of at least 10? Such things actually matter in the business world. Yes, ad revenue is off, but circulation revenue is up three years running (partially because we charge for online access). Your attempts at clever analogies "...got a new suit while the bank is foreclosing..." are neither apt nor accurate. How does investing in the future while improving cash flow prove your point that print is dead? In our case, the bank looked at our books and business plan and not only didn't foreclose but eagerly lent us money.

I don't mind naysayers and critics, but they should stick to facts. A blogger who professes to be practicing journalism ought to be held to journalistic standards, and your post fails the test.

Roger Plothow

rplothow

Posted Sat, Feb 21, 6:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you all for not placing blame at the door of craigslist.

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

Blogging is the new journalism. Opinion and bloviating has replaced facts as the coin of the realm.

FatBoy

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 10:34 p.m. Inappropriate

We'll get over it? No we won't.

Posted Fri, Feb 27, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Having been in the business myself and having read countless similar pieces from around the country, essays from Time, E&P;, CJR, Poynter, et al, there is no question that we will have a number of major cities within the U.S. without a major daily newspaper in the very near future, that the base centuries-old economic model is irrevocably broken, that the industry as whole is not in a major shift but rather in a death spiral, that this constitutes a very real threat to public discourse and democracy as we know it, and that no one has any inkling of an idea of where this is heading or from whence good, hard-hitting investigative journalism will come.

I do think newsrooms will become more virtual, a nexus of freelanced content shared across formerly secured corporate, physical and intellectual property rights borders. This is already happening to some extent which is, unto itself, a plumb of the depths of desperation to which the industry has sunk. I don't see how, however, how anyone will be able to make a living at it, unless perhaps that we're all going to be working for Google in the end.

There are many good examples of new emerging media business models. No doubt most of these will fail but by god they are trying to build from the bottom up instead of hanging from the top ledge by their fingernails.

I would love to see more coverage of what's coming next, of the innovators, of the little guys with an idea, courage, and a lot of hope, and less on what we already know. That is the future of journalism and also, the fallacy of the past.

I dearly love newspapers. I am third generation newspaper on both sides. My father had the scars from hot lead and I grew up with a worn pica rule in my mouth. But I know it's the end. I mourn. But I also tell myself get the &*%$ up off the damn floor and move forward. Forget corporate media. Build your own. Figure it out. FIND the new business model that will work before it really is too late.

tom_hyde

Posted Sat, Feb 28, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

This may be a bit obsessive, but I tracked down the guy who sold the Post Register its new press. New presses sold by Goss, the company that made the P-R's press, can cost up to $100 million or more. The P-R's press, which cost $2.4 million, is "drastically different" from the presses used by larger newspapers, such as those used by the Seattle Times and P-I, he says. That is, it has a limited capacity for newsprint, but it can be economically employed to print anything from flyers to coupons when it is not being used to print papers. So if Plothow's paper survives, where others will won't, it will become a commercial printing operation in its off hours. Unfortunately, most papers can't do that.

richards

Posted Sun, Mar 1, 4:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Well done, Bill. Obsessive? No, that's journalism. Don't you wish you had done it before you wrote the piece?

You've also helped to illustrate my point, that there is a vast difference between small newspapers and the metros, which is why more care needs to be taken when we talk about the "newspaper industry." Of the 1,400 daily newspapers in the country, 1,300 are less than 75,000 circulation. Those papers, while also suffering from the recession, are generally doing pretty well, still generating double-digit profit margins.

Just under 10 percent of the Post Register's revenue comes from commercial printing, and the new Goss press should allow us to double that, while dramatically improving the print quality of our newspaper.

Roger Plothow
Post Register

rplothow

Posted Tue, Mar 3, 7:46 a.m. Inappropriate

It's good to know that many smaller publications are still doing well and it's a fair request to provide more specifics and caveats when speaking of the newspaper industry as a whole. But I have to wonder about the long term viability of smaller publications as well since many are owned by the same chains that float the flagships.

Is it a fair assessment to believe that if a chain sinks it will pull down all its publications with it regardless of relative profitability? In this economic climate and mindset regarding the newspaper industry as a whole and its economic model, who would step forward to purchase these smaller publications?

To use a local example, if McClatchy were to fail, would someone step in to buy the (Tacoma) News Tribune, the Olympian, the Bellingham Herald, or the Tri-City Herald? Really?

tom_hyde

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