As previously reported, I've heard from a seemingly reliable source that the Statesman Journal, Salem's daily newspaper that's owned by Gannett, will cease being a print publication in 2019.
This would mark another milestone in the paper's steady journalistic decline, both in quantity (number of reporters and original stories) and quality (investigative reporting is minimal, especially on the local level).
Today I read a Politico Magazine piece, "This is How a Newspaper Dies," that provided some fresh insights into what is happening with the Statesman Journal. The subtitle of Jack Shafer's highly interesting story is It's with a spasm of profits.
Now, I don't know how profitable the Statesman Journal is. But what's been happening with the paper is very much in line with Shafer's analysis of the Denver Post and other newspapers owned by a so-called "vulture capitalist," Randall Smith.
Here's the core notion:
The business-school label for tactics like Alden’s, in which you get fewer customers to pay more for less, as Philip Meyer wrote in his book The Vanishing Newspaper, is “harvesting market position.” By raising prices and lowering quality, a stagnant business can rely on its most loyal customers to continue to buy the product, allowing it to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze its customers as they croak.
This slow liquidation of an asset’s value, destroying even its reputation in the process, kills the product.
Wherever newspapers can be found reducing page size, cutting news pages, narrowing coverage area, reducing staff, shrinking circulation area, postponing the purchase of new equipment and raising subscription prices, they are harvesting market position. Faced with two business options, earn small sums from his newspapers over an indeterminate time or cash in big all at once, perhaps hastening the end, Smith has chosen the latter.
So let's see how many of these criteria for "harvesting market position" by getting fewer customers to pay more for less the Statesman Journal checks off.
Raising subscription prices. Check. The Statesman Journal's Sunday-Monday home delivery rate has increased about 50% in a bit over a year. Annoyingly, new subscribers pay about 1/5 of what loyal long-time subscribers are being charged.
Lowering quality. Check. See "Devastating critique of Salem Statesman Journal by experienced journalist" and "Maybe its time for the Statesman Journal to die."
Declining circulation. Check. See "Salem Statesman Journal daily circulation in steep decline." There was a 41% drop in circulation from 2008 to 2014.
Staff layoffs. Check. See "Layoffs at Statesman Journal tied to worrisome Gannett 'newsroom of the future'."
There's probably no way to reverse the impending demise of newspapers such as the Statesman Journal. Young people aren't interested in paying to read yesterday's news, especially when it is printed on paper. And old people like me who are hooked on a daily newspaper are, sad but true, dying off.
Shafer tells it like it is.
Allow yourself to sympathize with Smith for a moment. He’s deeply invested in a stagnant industry whose primary audience is approaching its own expiration date. Think of the Denver Post and most other newspapers as your grandfather who is on dialysis, has a pacemaker and totes an oxygen tank behind him. He looks alive, but he’s overdue. Your grandfather is a pretty good stand-in for the average newspaper subscriber, too. Habituated to his morning newspaper, he’ll resist cancelling his subscription no matter how raggedy the paper gets or how high the owners jack up the price.
At some point, though, the game of jacking up the price of a newspaper while lowering the journalistic quality of the product has to hit a brick wall of reader resistance. It's just a matter of time, most likely, until daily print newspapers go extinct -- aside from a few high-quality national papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post.
Who will be responsible? Ultimately you and me, according to Shafer.
Why pin exclusive blame on Smith for the demise of the Denver Post when there’s plenty of blame to go around? In 2008, then-Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff spotted another villain in the rot and decay of his newspaper as it downsized to three days a week of home delivery. “The owner didn’t decide to shrink the paper. The reader decided to shrink the paper,” LeDuff said. It was readers who stopped subscribing. It was readers who stopped using newspaper classifieds. It was readers who stopped reading. Readers are the true villains in this murder mystery.