The problem is on several fronts. For some reason, corporations got the idea that you can make money hand-over-fist in the newspaper business. The reality is, you can make a living owning a paper, but you’re not going to get rich. About 80 percent of a newspaper’s costs are fixed – transportation, the cost of ink, the cost of the paper. There’s only so much you can cut there, so you have to make your cuts in that remaining 20 percent.
What gets cut at a local paper? Well, your older reporters are making too much money, the bean counters say, so they have to go. Nevermind that they have the knowledge base that is critical and have developed a loyal reader base over the years, we’ll kick them out the door and replace them with somebody fresh out of school. And we’ll pay the newbies a buck more than minimum wage and squeeze as much as we can out of them before they burn out and quit.
What else gets cut? Well, we’re printing too many sections/editions, so that gets cut. Nevermind that you’re cutting your available ad space in half, it means we can lay off pressmen and buy a cheaper press.
We’ll centralize our ad production, laying off the ad builders who had personal relationships with their customers and knew what they wanted and how to make their ads pop off the page. Our ad builders at the centralized location are so overworked that they don’t have time to give any ad the personal touch, so the ads look bland, but we saved a few salaries.
We’ll either ignore the Internet altogether or we’ll put a website up long after the horse has left the barn and our readers are used to getting their news elsewhere. The industry treated their news like it didn’t have value, giving it away for free on their sites. Now many outfits are trying to put up paywalls – but readers are used to not paying for their content, so that’s a tough hill to climb.
I don’t know the solution. But it seems to me the bigger newspaper outfits are ignoring the one thing they have that their competitors don’t – local news, local content, local knowledge, local relationships. They cut and cut and cut until the remaining skeleton crews don’t have the time or energy to pursue those local stories that the other guys aren’t covering.
By the way, I just started with Patch after 5 years with weekly newspapers and I’m loving every minute of it. Is Patch like bartl describes? It’s too soon for me to say, as I literally started last week, but I will say this: Patch has given me more opportunities for training in the last two weeks than my former employer gave me in the last four years. Training is how you develop your people. Treating it as a line-item that can be cut is a huge, huge mistake.
My feeling is Patch can help a newspaper website by linking to stories and driving those visitors back to the original newspaper site. I would hate to see the area weeklies go out of business. But they’re being hurt far more by their ownership than by any threat Patch poses, I really believe.