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From the Magazine: Monday, September 15, 2008

The newspaper industry is collapsing. How to save an American institution.

At The Washington Post, the newspaper where I’ve worked for over a quarter-century, we’re just now wrapping up the summer of the long goodbye. Beginning in May, the more than 100 newsroom employees who took the paper’s latest buyout offer have been feted at, or subjected to, a seemingly endless succession of bon-voyage celebrations and/or wakes: boozy parties in bars and residences, cake-and-cookies klatches in the newsroom, a formal farewell tribute in one of the Post’s meeting rooms. 

It was the third Post buyout in the past five years, and by far the most significant. Several valued reporters, critics, and editors took the first two—among them the respected political analyst Tom Edsall and my fellow book critic, Michael Dirda—but the core of the newspaper remained on staff or continued to work on a more limited basis on contract, as I myself have done since the 2006 buyout. But the 2008 buyout cut right into the paper’s heart, stripping it not merely of notable bylines—military reporter Tom Ricks, music critic Tim Page—but also of editors little-known outside the paper but invaluable inside: Deborah Heard, editor of the Style section, Belle Elving, Home editor, K. C. Summers, Travel editor, Marie Arana (full disclosure: my wife), Book World editor, and many others.

What price the Post will pay over the long run for the loss of these gifted and dedicated people is impossible to say, but the paper is almost certain to become a different place to work and—of far greater importance to the millions who read it in print or online—a very different newspaper. Because of the high position it enjoys in American journalism, the Post is playing out the present newspaper crisis on a grand scale, and how it responds to the crisis will be studied in publishers’ and editors’ offices around the country.

An Industry in Crisis

Make no mistake about it, this is a crisis. Speaking in May to a group of journalists, Rupert Murdoch pointed out that, as his own newly acquired Wall Street Journal reported, “in the last five or six months, the average newspaper had seen its ad revenue drop 10 to 30 percent.” A decade and a half ago, the average daily circulation of the Post was 832,232; it is now 638,000. The Washington Post Company’s operating revenue in 1999 was $157 million; last year it was $66 million. Newspaper consultant Mark Potts has examined the overall financial picture for American newspapers and, as reported by Charles Layton in the June/July issue of The American Journalism Review (AJR), predicts that “by the year 2020 print ad revenue will be about half what it is today,” leaving newspapers with “six more years of economic pain—continued cuts in staff, newshole and newsgathering resources—before they even start to turn a corner” with improved revenue from Internet advertising.

“The scariest problem,” AJR reported, “is that many papers won’t share in the online growth….And even as the industry as a whole survives, we may begin seeing, pretty soon, big American cities with no daily newspaper.” As Potts puts it: “It’s going to be really bloody, incredibly devastating. And I think there are going to be a lot of major metros that don’t make it.”

As one who published his first newspaper article more than half a century ago, in the University of North Carolina student paper, The Daily Tar Heel, and who has remained continuously employed in newspapers ever since graduating from UNC in 1961, I find “devastating” exactly the right word. Like innumerable others, I cannot separate the professional, financial, and cultural loss now occurring from the simultaneous personal loss. Not to be melodramatic, but the world in which I have spent my entire adult working life is falling to pieces before my eyes. Thanks to the Post’s generous pension plan, Social Security, and other modest sources of income, I’ll be okay until the Grim Reaper comes for me, but it’s heartbreaking to watch the decline, and perhaps the fall, of the business that I love.

What price the Post will pay long term for the loss of gifted and dedicated staff is impossible to say, but it is almost certain to become a very different newspaper.

I am not, I should hasten to make plain, your basic ink-stained wretch of journalistic mythology, having spent almost my entire working life in what hard-boiled reporters and editors dismiss as the “soft” side of the business, which includes features, reviews, and editorials. Still, I am a bona fide newspaper junkie. I cannot imagine life without the Post and the Times every morning. I read the Journal and other papers online, and wherever I travel I always pick up the local newspaper every day. When I’m at the apartment my wife and I own in Lima, Peru, we have the country’s best newspaper, El Comercio, delivered every day, and I make a heroic effort to read it in, of course, Spanish. I’ve worked on newspapers small and large, and the beat goes on: Both of my sons are reporters for The New York Times, Jim in Beijing and William in Seattle.

When I was young I thought I was headed for a career as standard-issue Scoop Newsboy. At Chapel Hill I was editor of The Daily Tar Heel, a job I positively adored, and one that I thought, and still think, I did pretty well. I wrote all of its editorials and, in 1960–1961, became utterly caught up in the drama of the civil rights movement.

I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Claude Sitton, the great New York Times Southern correspondent, and was thrilled that my first job, starting in the summer of 1961, was as intern to James Reston of the Times, then perhaps the country’s most famous journalist (his picture had been on the cover of Time magazine only a few months earlier). But as much as I admired and even venerated him, I found that I wasn’t cut out to emulate his reportorial example.

Instead I moved from the Times’s Washington bureau to its New York offices, where I spent two years writing short, anonymous news analyses for its Sunday supplement, the News of the Week in Review, an invaluable learning experience but one that did not point me to a career in the paper’s newsroom. In the summer of 1964, realizing that my opportunities at the Times were limited, I left to become an editorial writer for The Greensboro Daily News (now The News & Record), staying there for a decade and picking up the book-review editor’s duties on the side. 

The book-review job reflected things I’d learned while on sabbatical at Harvard in the academic year 1968–1969 on a Nieman Fellowship. I’d gone there planning to study ethical matters relating to my editorial-writing duties but ended up focusing on literary ones. By the early 1970s I was publishing book reviews regularly in national publications and had turned my ambitions in that direction, so when in 1974 The Miami Herald offered to make me its first full-time book editor, I leaped at the opportunity; this, bear in mind, was the “golden age,” and a newspaper as fat and prominent as the Herald could easily afford to take on someone to handle duties that most reporters and editors regarded as peripheral, at best, to a newspaper’s chief obligations.

I had five happy years there: writing my first book, editing the Herald’s weekly Viewpoint section and its book page, and learning to my everlasting amusement that the prevailing local term for the kind of journalism I do was “thumbsucking.” But by the late 1970s, I felt less comfortable with newsroom management, so even though it was risky to join the enfeebled Washington Star, in December 1978 I signed on as its book editor. I stayed there until August 1981, when it was killed off by its owner, then known as Time Inc., and immediately moved to the Post. For my first two decades there I was both its book critic, writing two reviews a week, and a decidedly thumbsucking weekly columnist for Style; since taking the 2006 buyout, I’ve been writing a Sunday review for Book World and an irregular Style feature on older books.

It’s a nice life, and I love it, but I’ll be surprised if whoever takes over my title and duties will find his or her catbird seat as comfortable as mine has been. I hope and pray that the Post will continue to publish Book World in one form or another long after I’m gone—for reasons I’ll get to presently—but there’s absolutely no guarantee of that. More than ever before in my memory, editorial decisions at newspapers are being influenced, and in many cases completely determined, by financial considerations, and the voices of people in newspapers’ business offices are being heard more loudly and clearly. This is hard on editors and newsroom personnel, who traditionally have been vigilant in insisting on complete separation between “church” (the news hounds) and “state” (the bean counters), but economic realities dictate cooperation between the two.

More than ever before in my memory, editorial decisions at newspapers are being influenced, and in many cases completely determined, by financial considerations.

The question is not whether those realities are going to change newspapers, but how. That newspapers are faced with this imperative is more than slightly ironic, because for all their reputation as hotbeds of liberalism, institutionally they are, and always have been, implacably conservative. They resist change stubbornly and usually do not handle it very adeptly when it is forced on them. Their response in the 1980s and 1990s to television generally and the rise of cable specifically, for example, was to fall all over themselves trying to imitate USA Today, while failing to recognize that (a) USA Today was sui generis and thus inherently inimitable, and (b) reducing the length of stories, cutting back on jumps from section fronts, putting cluttered contents boxes on those fronts, emphasizing celebrity news, and falling head over heels in love with graphics and design were not the most sensible response to the needs and desires of all newspaper readers.

Newspaper editors tend to be people who excelled as reporters and were promoted into management both to reward them for outstanding performance and in hopes of taking editorial advantage of their reportorial skills and experience.

Sometimes this works, a notable recent example being the near-legendary editorship of Gene Roberts at The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1972 to 1990, and sometimes it doesn’t, as witness James Reston’s unhappy tenure as executive editor of The New York Times from 1968 to 1969. People who make this transition tend to bring the reportorial mindset with them, which is more effective at directing coverage of specific stories than at identifying ways in which newspapers need to improve and change, especially if change has the potential to overturn long established and treasured apple carts.

My impression is that now, when newspapers need to change as never before, too often they are floundering, caught between a past they don’t want to lose and a future they find (understandably) hard to comprehend. The situation was succinctly summarized for AJR’s Layton by Conrad Fink, a former newspaperman who now teaches “newspaper management” at the University of Georgia. Newspapers have to change, he said, “And we’re going to have to be damn fast about it. We’re behind the curve now. We’ve been talking, talking, talking for years. I don’t think we can delay any longer.” He’s right, and he’s especially right if “we” are editors at some of the country’s most famous big-city newspapers, from The Boston Globe to The Miami Herald to The San Francisco Chronicle to—yes—The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. The big three—The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal—have more than their share of problems, but difficulties at metropolitan dailies whose reach is primarily local and regional are far worse. Their circulation and print advertising revenues are falling but, as Layton points out in AJR, their Internet advertising revenues are not even coming close to making up the difference. Their websites are not attractive to local advertisers because a significant percentage of their Internet viewers live outside the print circulation area, and they aren’t attractive to national advertisers because they can reach much larger national (and international) audiences through other websites, including those of the big three.

“When I ask [Conrad Fink] which of the major metro dailies might be the first to shut down,” Layton writes, “he immediately suggests The San Francisco Chronicle, which has been losing $60 million a year. He also thinks Tribune Co., with its crushing burden of debt, is ‘in jeopardy,’ although he finds it hard to imagine that The Chicago Tribune would ever just disappear.” So do I, yet events of the past decade or so force us to think the unthinkable. This includes not merely the possibility that readers in, say, Cleveland and Houston and Minneapolis no longer will be able to read local daily newspapers in print editions, but also that we have to think about newspapers in ways we’ve rarely thought about them in the past.

The Newspaper of Tomorrow

I don’t pretend to have much capacity for magical thinking, nor do I pretend that my half-century in journalism uniquely qualifies me to play Nostradamus. I don’t own a crystal ball (nor, to my knowledge, does anyone else), but I do have some strong opinions about what newspapers can, and should, do in order to keep a viable place for themselves in a vastly more complex and fluid American communications system. These opinions are formed in large measure by my quarter-century at the Post, so I will mention it from time to time as I outline my vision for the newspaper of tomorrow, but also by a lifetime on journalism’s “soft” side, for I am convinced that for the daily print newspaper—as opposed to its Internet side—“soft” is the way to go.

By “soft” I don’t just mean features, reviews, and op-ed commentaries, though those should be important to the newspaper of the future. I also mean the investigative reporting essential to any good newspaper’s mission (viz., The Washington Post) and reports that go beyond the news, that concentrate less on what happened and more on what it means. The Internet is very good at telling us what happened, as any follower of the 2008 presidential election can attest, but not so good at interpreting it. A lot of screaming takes place on the Internet, in blogs, chat rooms, and other forums, but there’s not much informed, measured explanation and analysis—forms of journalism at which, as it happens, newspapers have a lot of experience and can do well, as Dan Balz of the Post and Adam Nagourney of the Times have reminded us this presidential year.

For all their reputation as hotbeds of liberalism, institutionally newspapers are, and always have been, implacably conservative. They resist change stubbornly.

That’s the kind of journalism to which newspapers should devote ever more time and energy, but it needs to be presented in a sharply altered context. To survive and regain some measure of profitability, the print end of the newspaper business has to start thinking small. It has to stop worrying about the size of its circulation and start worrying about the quality of that circulation. It has to identify people within its reach who still want to read the news—read it, that is, not pick it up in quick online hits or hear it in bits and pieces on television or radio—and who want to read it on paper. Instead of dumbing down—making stories shorter and snappier, assuming that readers have the intellectual curiosity of couch potatoes—it has to smarten up. It has to give readers meatier articles, analyses, and opinion pieces, and it has to give these to them not in a daily newspaper but in a daily magazine.

Newspapers as we now know them are printed in the large format known as broadsheet. Fold it in half and you get the tabloid, traditionally the format for sensational urban newspapers (Newsday, of Long Island, is the chief exception to the rule of sensationalism) and sneered at by the journalistic establishment. Yet the tabloid form, or some variation thereof, would be perfect for a daily magazine. As Newsday readers have known for years, the tabloid is more congenial to the reader than the broadsheet: easier to hold, easier to take in a full page at a glance, and more adaptable in challenging reading environments such as trains.

Some no doubt will object that in order to fit everything in today’s broadsheet newspaper into a tabloid, it would have to be so big as to scare readers away. But the newspaper of the future will have no need to publish most of the ephemera with which it is now cluttered—stock-market tables, baseball box scores, movie and television listings, brief news items from around the state, the nation, and the world— because it’s all easily available on the Internet.

Huge amounts of money now poured into newsprint and ink could be saved by switching from broadsheet to tabloid (as The Times of London did four years ago) and by shrinking not merely the physical size of the paper but also its number of pages. Readers may not be aware of it, but many newspapers have been moving in recent years toward smaller broadsheet pages as a cost-cutting measure, and in fact these smaller papers are considerably more attractive than their predecessors. Why not bite the bullet and take the next logical step to tabloid?

Huge amounts of money now poured into newsprint and ink could be saved by switching from broadsheet to tabloid and by shrinking the number of pages.

On its front page and inside, the daily newspaper/magazine that I envision would have fewer stories, but their average length might be greater, though I like to think not of the stupefying length editors permit some in-depth stories to run in hopes of winning Pulitzer Prizes. In editing as in writing, taking things out is harder than putting them in, so editors would be under greater pressure to make informed choices as to which stories should be expanded and reworked for the print edition and which should run as is on the Internet edition. The front page would look less like what we’re used to and more like, say, The New York Review of Books, with featured articles listed in an inviting, rather than cluttered, fashion.

On many weekdays, this hypothetical newspaper might run 64 tabloid pages, 128 at most. That’s not as dramatic a change as you might imagine or as newspaper people might fear. The edition of The Washington Post dated June 9, 2008, the day I began work on this article, contained only 66 broadsheet pages, the equivalent of 132 tabloid pages. When you consider that a great deal of what was in that day’s print edition would only be online in the future, it becomes clear that an appreciable amount of space would be available for the magazine-style articles that would be the meat and potatoes of the new paper.

What many editors and readers may not realize is that newspapers already are moving in this direction, whether deliberately or not I do not know. The front page of that June 9 Washington Post had six articles, five photographs, and one contents box. Of the six articles, only one—a weather story, “Pre-Summer Sizzle Heads into Third Day”—was a conventional hard news story. The other five were essentially magazine pieces: two profiles, one about the new rebel leader in Colombia, another about a blogger who has broken important stories during the presidential campaign; an account of the troubled financial condition of the U.S. Senate restaurants; an overview of charter schools in New Orleans; and a report on adoption policies at local animal shelters. It struck me as a good mix, an inviting page, and even as a certifiable weather nut I’d have been happy to relegate the weather story to the website and let another “soft” article take up that space. Yes, it’s true that the Monday paper follows Sunday, a slow news day, and thus is more hospitable to untraditional coverage, but the editors of that edition, whoever they may have been, weren’t afraid to be unconventional.

Papers for Elites

In other words we may already be moving toward the daily magazine model even as we struggle to find the most workable and economically viable relationship between our print and Internet editions. Moving, that is, in terms of editorial content. On the business side, though, too often the conventional wisdom seems to be in charge, and what it calls for is reducing content and staff in order to cut costs. At newspapers everywhere, business offices are content to zero in on the trees and ignore the forest. Thus various sections of a newspaper are seen as profitable and therefore to be supported, perhaps even expanded, while others are seen as not bringing in enough advertising to pay for the cost of producing them and therefore to be shrunk, if not eliminated.

The great world of newspapers is now a fragmented market of zillions of websites. If the daily print newspaper is going to survive, it’s going to have to find its niche.

Yes, it’s true: Not a single newspaper book section in the country “makes money,” not even the fat New York Times Book Review; the money to underwrite them mostly comes from overall newspaper revenues. That’s why, if you’ve been keeping up with the newspaper business lately, you’ve seen that in the past couple of years several newspapers have eliminated or scaled down their book sections. The thinking goes, as best I can understand it, that since book sections (or opinion sections, or editorial pages, or sports sections) don’t attract enough money to “pay for themselves,” they must not have many readers, so they can be eliminated without upsetting anybody except the people who lose their jobs and the authors and publishers who get free critical attention.

There are two problems with this, both of which bear on the future of the American print newspaper. The first is that you can’t simply break down a newspaper into sections that pull in advertising dollars and sections that don’t. A newspaper is an entity, an entirety. If a newspaper were edited for me it would have more reviews, commentary, and analysis, and fewer (if any) comics, horoscopes, and commodities reports. But a newspaper is not edited for me. Or, more accurately, it’s edited for me and for the person who wants more comics, horoscopes, and commodities reports and fewer (if any) reviews, commentary, and analysis. Book sections don’t get ads because books are marketed very differently from cars and groceries (you can sell Ford cars per se but you can’t sell Random House books per se) and because the book industry chooses to concentrate such ad dollars as it has available on The Times Book Review and The New York Review, but this doesn’t mean that readers of The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times aren’t reading book reviews in those papers. To the contrary, reader surveys suggest that 20 percent to 25 percent of the Post’s readers are also Book World readers, an entirely respectable figure when you consider how many other choices the Sunday Post offers them.

The second problem, which obviously is closely related to the first, is that both editors and business-office managers tend to assume that book coverage specifically, and cultural coverage generally, is of interest only to a relatively small percentage of a paper’s overall circulation. Well, the percentages may be fairly small but the readers themselves most certainly are not. They are every newspaper’s hard, central core, people who read and who will continue to read long after the present crisis has passed. As newspaper circulation shrinks, these people will become even more important, not less, to the industry’s prospects, and they are the people for whom my hypothetical newspaper of the future should be edited. They are also the reason Book World, in whatever form, must continue to be a part of The Washington Post of the future, and much more than a mere token gesture to readers of books, whoever and however many they may be.

It’s going to be a smaller newspaper in size and in circulation as well, but if it’s edited and promoted correctly it can be a profitable newspaper. The word “elite” is much out of fashion these days, but an elite newspaper is just what this one would be: written and edited for people who are educated, politically and culturally engaged, probably with higher than average earned and disposable income. They will be smaller in numbers than those who read newspapers now, and probably a bit older than average, but for certain kinds of advertisers they will be a more attractive target audience. Just as advertising on cable television and the Internet is ever more narrowly targeted, so should be advertising in print newspapers. Here’s a little story about newspaper advertising.

For as long as it has existed, the newspaper has been nothing less than a daily miracle, a book unto itself that nothing in cyberspace or television can ever hope to replace.

For the first 20-plus years I worked at The Washington Post, a wine shop on Capitol Hill ran an ad every Monday, virtually without exception. Then, a few years back, it set up a website and began sending a weekly email sale notice to customers who signed up for it. Later it started running fewer ads; then it stopped running them altogether. I knew exactly why, but I asked anyway. The explanation, of course, was that an expensive ad in the Post might bring in a handful of customers, but the email, done at a fraction of the cost, went directly to people who had expressed a positive interest in the store and its stock. “Well,” I said, “good for you, bad for my employer”—but I open that email every time it pops up and it’s led me to some very good wines at very good prices.

Could this advertiser be lured back if the Post’s circulation shrank to, say, 350,000 and ad rates were reduced accordingly? I have no idea. But I suspect that a newspaper with a more tightly controlled circulation, focused on loyal readers and upmarket neighborhoods, would be more appealing than one that, in today’s radically altered marketplace, casts a much wider net than most advertisers are willing or able to pay for. I know this runs contrary to just about everything newspaper people have believed for as long as I can remember—bigger is better—and I know it sounds “elitist,” in the unfashionable sense of the word, but the world has changed. The great mass market that once supported three national TV networks is now a fragmented market of zillions of cable channels, and the great world of newspapers is now a fragmented market of even more zillions of websites. If the daily print newspaper is going to survive, it needs to find its niche.

I think the newspaper/magazine I’ve described could be a wonderful product, but it gives me no pleasure at all to contemplate the fragmentation or demise of the traditional newspaper. For one thing I’ve been a small-d democrat all my life; I want to bring good things to as many people as possible, and I consider the newspaper a very good thing. I’m also a professional writer who needs to be paid but loves to be read; I want more, not fewer, readers. I don’t for a moment think that it will be easy to bring around advertisers to a newspaper as radically rethought as I’ve suggested. I have absolutely no idea how newspapers will be able to bring in enough ad revenue from their websites to underwrite those sites, yet I know that the success of those sites will be absolutely essential to the newspapers’ viability. I don’t know whether stories and commentaries written especially for my newspaper/magazine should be given away on the Web or held back for a day or two in order to guarantee newspaper subscribers a measure of exclusivity.

In fact, as all my newspaper friends would be the first to tell me, there’s a hell of a lot that I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I love newspapers deeply and that the life of this country will be greatly diminished if they are unable to find ways to continue to perform their most essential obligations, which range from keeping us informed to keeping us entertained. For as long as it has existed, the newspaper has been nothing less than a daily miracle, a book unto itself that comes out every single day and that nothing in cyberspace or television can ever hope to replace. My own newspaper days aren’t far from over, but I can only pray there will always be a newspaper, whatever form it may take, for my children and grandchildren and the generations to come.

Jonathan Yardley is the book critic for The Washington Post and the author of six books. He won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Illustration by Luba Lukova.

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