Sunday, May 27, 2012

Newspapers clinging to life in digital era

Not many people know that I actually investigated purchase of The Times-Reporter shortly after Copley Press put it and the remainder of its Ohio and Illinois properties up for sale in 2006.

During a meeting that I and a friend with vast knowledge of such things and who was kind enough to serve as a consultant had with a local commercial banker it became obvious that the process was beyond our capabilities. The bank might loan against the value of the newspaper’s real estate but not the “blue sky” worth of the actual business.

For that, we’d need venture capital and friends with deep pockets in the New York financial houses. In addition, Copley Press, whose flagship at the time was the San Diego Union-Tribune, was not interested in selling its Midwest newspaper properties piecemeal. It wanted one deal – one check – for the nine Ohio and Illinois daily and weekly publications.

Ultimately, GateHouse Media obliged and in 2007 purchased the publications for $380 million. Employees were never privy to the value of each newspaper, but I think it’s safe to say that The T-R’s value was somewhere between $30 million and $40 million.

I have to say Copley Press was the best company I ever worked for, but at the same time note that its executives also had business savvy. They knew when it was time to sell and in 2006, after owning the Ohio properties for five years, it was time to disassemble its publishing empire and turn it into cash.

Meanwhile, GateHouse Media was attempting to build an empire. But in 2008, shortly after GateHouse pulled the let’s-grow-bigger trigger, the economy blew up. Newspapers found themselves underneath tons of economic rubble.

Other forces were at work as well, including but not limited to the Kindle, the iPad, the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter – well, you name it.

Revenues plummeted as advertisers sought to save money and connect with consumers directly.

In response, GateHouse Media and other publishing companies did what they had to do – cut staff and consolidated departments along with printing and distribution. Now, they’re attempting to outsource content (news) production and editing all while moving to a digital publishing model.

The move online has been less than satisfying.

Alan Mutter, a consultant specializing in corporate initiatives and new media ventures and who writes a blog on the newspaper business, estimates that publishers since 2005 have lost $26.7 billion in print revenue while gaining only $1.2 billion in new digital (online) revenue.

“Thus, the true ratio of print loss to digital gain is 22 to 1, not the 7 to 1 reported by Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in March,” he wrote.

All of this has had an impact on the community newspaper’s ability to serve its readers. For example, there are 11 staffers in the T-R newsroom today, down from more than 25 just a few years ago.

And on May 21, 2012, it became evident that, for the Times-Reporter, its dominance in local news was in jeopardy. At 9:20 a.m., an accident at Dover Chemical Corp. threatened disaster for the community. I-77 was shut down in both directions. Law enforcement authorities were telling nearby residents to evacuate. Traffic in the city crawled.

The T-R posted its first report – four paragraphs – on the situation at 11:37 a.m. It sent no Tweets. And it didn’t use Facebook. That first report was updated again at 2:37. It promised more later.

All of the other media outlets in Tuscarawas County – the Bargain Hunter, WJER, and WTUZ – were using every available platform from early morning on. I found out about the situation from WEWS in Cleveland, which sent me a smart phone alert mid morning.

People noticed the news outlets that were paying attention. The Bargain Hunter and the radio stations were applauded on Facebook for keeping the readers and listeners up to date on the situation.

Last I looked, the T-R was taking licks on its own website over its lack of coverage.

This is not something that I or any of the other former T-R staffers take pleasure in reporting or discussing. There are so many longtime employees who toiled in that building on Wabash Ave. NW and took pride in the product who are now watching from the sidelines.

I think I can speak for most of them, if not all of them, when I say we watch this process with great sadness.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dick: You’re just an obstreperous old codger. You need to read today’s TR editorial where they pat themselves on the back for doing a good job with the Dover Chemical story :-)

One part of the TR story that was not good was the statement, “Dipropylene glycol — commonly known as automotive antifreeze — was one of the reactants in the reactor chamber that overheated.” Not correct: automotive antifreeze is ethylene glycol, a completely different compound. Dipropylene glycol is used as a polymerization initiator or as a plasticizer. If I lived in the “fall zone” I’d want to know what the other reactants were.