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NOV. 18, 2017

COVER STORY

COVER STORY

The Newspaper Industry Is On Life Support

By Edwin QUINABO

The Honolulu Star Advertiser’s recent announcement that it laid off 15 newsroom employees was a sign of the times for the newspaper business -- employment cutbacks amidst a beleaguered industry struggling in transition.

Editor and Publisher’s DataBook Listing shows there are 126 fewer daily newspapers in 2014 than 2004. Job cuts are viewed in the industry as a necessary evil for survival. In 2016 alone, there have been 400 job cuts, buyouts or layoffs. Latest data (2014) shows 20,000 fewer newsroom jobs than 20 years prior.

Dennis Francis, president and publisher of the Star Advertiser, said “RIFs (reductions in force) have been a part of the newspaper landscape even here in Honolulu since the late 1990s.”

For the past 15 years, the newspaper industry has been on life-support undergoing structural changes and moving desperately to entrench itself in the future of news delivery -- to have a large presence digitally on the Internet, to be in news cycles of popular social media platforms, and to tech-in to news apps for mobile phones.

In this transitional stage when everyone seems to be losing ground, consolidation is commonplace. Giant newspaper chains devour other giant newspaper chains. Once newspaper stalwarts on their own, E.W. Scripps, Journal Communications and Gannett are now one company. In over a decade, print newspaper advertising revenue dropped from about $60 billion to about $20 billion, leaving veteran newsroom boards who have survived to soul-search for answers.

The upshot is that the print newspaper industry still takes in a sizeable share of overall media revenues, but it continues to slip behind cable TV; and is being challenged by new digital news brands like Vice, Buzzfeed, and Vox that have never printed a single issue off the press, but publishes in what is known as offsite platform publishing -- the future mode of publishing.

“People in Cleveland and Dallas and San Diego have not only stopped subscribing to their local newspapers but in many cases are reading the websites of national news organizations instead of the website of their local paper," wrote Timothy Lee at Vox.

The entire print newspaper industry is scrambling to reinvent news delivery. Legacy newspapers -- the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post -- in trying to establish a greater presence and branding, regularly co-opt with cable news TV to have their print journalists appear on camera as regular news commentators. While cable TV remains strong, TV execs are willing to team-up with their former adversary (print media) because they worry that the freak force of the Internet will also eventually cut into its market share.      

Circulation and Advertising Down

While digital/Internet circulation is up, it accounts for only 22 percent of total circulation for print newspapers; and overall print newspaper circulation is still down by 7 percent in 2015.

Similarly, digital/Internet advertising is growing, making up one-fourth of advertising revenues, but traditional print advertising revenue fell by 10 percent in 2015, affecting a drop in total newspaper advertising revenues.

Both circulation and advertising numbers show that the transition to digital platform has yet to become profitable for print newspapers carving out a niche on the Internet. But data shows reader-migration is clearly headed from traditional print to digital platform publishing and desktop-mobile news feeds.

Digital and Traditional Print Presence

Even though data shows providing consumers both traditional print and a digital platform alternative is not necessarily a formula for financial success at this stage, practically all newspapers do it to satisfy consumers who see the benefits of getting news from the Internet.

Kailua resident Teresita Bernales, who gets her news from various sources such as cable TV, newspapers, radio and the Internet, said “Online presence is a must. While print media reigned supreme for so long, the Internet has enabled thousands of individual commentators to communicate directly with others through blogs or instant message services. Cost is another factor, one can get news for free from the internet. A combination of print and online, and other social media platforms, will increase revenue while optimizing delivery of news and maximizing traffic. When an online edition has been established, it is good to adopt and integrate real-time reporting where there are opportunities for comments and feedback. Building an online community is good by having Facebook fan page, LinkedIn group and Twitter, etc.”

Bernales mentions other reasons why traditional print news is down: “More and more citizens don't like to read anymore, it slows them down, since one can turn on cable news and hear the news while doing other tasks. We must also consider that the population who is used to reading are aging and declining, thus readership of this age group is now low.”

On the future of journalism, Bernales said, “A new kind of journalism is needed, one that will resonate strongly with us humans. Information-only type of journalism is not attracting the reading public as it used to, it lacks passion and does not hold the interest of the readers. It is suggested that journalists provide context and ideas. Journalism will survive but newspapers need to be saved because newspapers provide value to a democratic society. Newspapers have to think outside the box in order to survive. When you have gained the respect of readers, it is a tangible and credible source of reliable news. It is a great resource for marketing, reaching a diversified audience or even specific target market.”

Finding a Niche Audience

Targeting a market or finding a niche audience, as Bernales and others talk about, is the future of journalism. In the process of establishing a niche audience in news, a degree of color journalism is unavoidable. The pretense of being impartial as traditional journalism used to be is being replaced with unapologetic color journalism, as a matter of business survival.

From the political left and right, from MSNBC to Fox News, to Huffington Post to Breitbart News, all the giant news players resort to color journalism as a means to establish a loyal core following. Some news outlets clearly are more slanted than others, but it’s undeniable the trend toward niche journalism, or anti-journalism is here to stay as long as the current news business environment remains on the same track. 

Some people look to Fox News as the greatest example of color journalism and the future prototype of the industry. Fox News is a successful business model in terms of profit. It also established an unbelievably massive base following.

Other news outlets will not necessarily resort to right-wing journalism as Fox News, but cultivating product news through editorial slants is increasingly becoming the industry standard.

Ethical or not, the social experiment of color journalism has real consequences. Political scientists believe Fox News was a major driver in producing the intensity of right-wing extremism rampant today, from its favorable reporting of the Tea Party to its current coddling of the Trump administration.

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