North American Newspapers Positioning For a Digital Future

Article  by  Natalie HIDEG  •  Published 14.06.2012  •  Updated 15.06.2012
[NEWS] Four U.S. newspapers are cutting down to three-day-a-week printing schedules, while a Canadian media group will eliminate its Sunday editions. Owners prefer to label the changes as a ‘reorganization,’ but journalists and readers are left wondering what it will mean for the industry.
It used to be that daily newspapers had an online website readers could check out, as a supplement of sorts to the print version. Now the opposite may be coming true – websites that occasionally publish print editions.
A focus on digital has already taken hold at most newspapers, but so far, most have conserved their regular publication schedule. However, Louisiana’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, announced May 24, 2012 that in the fall of 2012 its publication frequency would drop to thrice-weekly. At the same time, three of Alabama’s most prominent dailies – The Birmingham News, the Press-Register of Mobile, The Huntsville Times and – are also making the transition to a three-day-a-week publication schedule. In 2009, The Ann Arbour News in Michigan dissolved, replaced by a bi-weekly print publication of the website The fear is that these most recent victims of the newspaper shift from print to digital – and others to follow – may soon share the same fate.
According to the PEW Research Center's "State of the News Media 2012" report, newspaper circulation has remained stable since the 1980s, but ad revenue has been dropping dramatically since 2006. Advance Publications, which owns all five papers in New Orleans, Ann Arbour and Alabama, claimed that the only response to this crisis was to reduce publication to Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, the most profitable for advertising. In the case of The Times-Picayune and that of the Alabama papers, the drop in publication frequency went hand in hand with the creation two new groups – NOLA[+] NoteNOLA is an acronym for New Orleans.X [1] Media Group in New Orleans, and Alabama Media Group, which will focus on producing editorial content. Advance Central Services, another group created under Advance Publications, will print and distribute both papers locally.

While The Times-Picayune and the Alabama papers are amongst the first to cease daily circulation, other newspapers have also experienced sharp cutbacks. Canadian media group Postmedia announced as well that three of its papers – The Calgary Herald, The Edmonton Journal and The Ottawa Citizen – would soon be eliminating their Sunday editions. The National Post, also owned by Postmedia, has eliminated Monday publications during the summer months, and has suggested that it may make this schedule change permanent. Some papers, such as the Detroit Free Press, have continued to publish daily, but have begun delivering to subscribers just three times a week. Others have put up online paywalls for content formerly free of charge.
Along with reductions in print frequency, newsroom cuts are sure to follow. Postmedia has offered voluntary buyouts to some of its employees, or asked them to take unpaid summer leave to save on salaries. Between the Alabama papers and New Orleans, approximately 600 posts have been cut so far, meaning one third of the staff at The Times-Picayune, and 60% of the editorial staff at The Birmingham News. Detroit Free Press publisher Paul Anger also announced anticipated future layoffs to his paper. Amid looming layoffs at Canadian newspapers, Union Director Martin O’ Hanlon of CWA Canada told CBC News that newsroom cuts will lead to a lessening of journalistic standards. "If we've learned anything over the last few years, it's that cutting jobs only hurts quality, and that does nothing to attract readers or generate revenue," he said.

Executives of local publications who have decided to reduce print schedules insist that the move will help newsrooms to expand their coverage on issues of most interest to readers: local news, sports and entertainment. The paper may not arrive daily at your doorstep, but when it does, it will be a more robust issue with in-depth investigative articles and pertinent information about the community. They argue the cost-cutting measures will help to preserve the quality of reporting and to ‘save’ the future of journalism. Digital First Media CEO John Paton, a self-proclaimed “career newspaperman” whose company operates 75 daily newspapers, said he understands the emotional response of newsrooms and readers to these tough decisions. But he told The New York Times that, “If you care about journalism, you’ve got to do this.” He supports the decisions made by Postmedia and Advance Publications in cutting down their print editions and focusing on digital, saying that he will consider doing the same once the digital advertising model becomes more stable. For the moment, advertisers are not willing to pay as much for digital newspaper ads as for those in physical copies, but executives are hoping to save on print and delivery costs.
Opponents to the measures believe that the quality of information posted online is inferior to that of print. The case of may be a sad insight into the future of newspapers. Since switching its focus from print to digital, its Sunday edition circulation has dropped by 20,000. Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Knight Wallace Journalism Fellows at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times that the website is no longer an authoritative voice for the city. “I don’t trust anything that is done on the cheap.”
Companies that stop daily publication of their papers may not be raking in massive profits, but for the moment, they aren’t going under either. Ad revenue is lacking, but circulation has remained steady. Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey insisted to The Globe and Mail that this isn’t a readership issue. “The public is still very hungry for news, but the answer is giving people news when they want to get it on the platform of their choice.” 
Which is perhaps the problem, yet could also be part of the solution. The Times-Picayune was thriving compared to other larger local newspapers when its owners decided to go the digital route. Its market penetration was fourth highest of any other paper of all dailies – at 65% – in the 50 biggest metro areas in the U.S. Its reporters continued to produce excellent investigative work, especially after Hurricane Katrina. But the platform of choice for this city appears not to be digital. 36% of New Orleanians are not connected to the Internet, so hoping that residents will feel forced into jumping on board may be wishful thinking.
Harry Shearer of the Columbia Journalism Review argues that companies that are so worried about the future of journalism should be willing to make humble financial sacrifices to save it. “The First Amendment offers government protection against almost all lawsuits from angry politicians, lazy ballplayers, and dim-witted celebrities whose exploits may be reported to their dismay. Should there be a societal expectation that the proprietors of such privileged enterprises owe a little something back—perhaps a calm acceptance of a lower profit margin than could be attained, say, in the car-leasing business? The [Times-Picayune], after all, is still reported to be profitable.”

Photo Credits:
-Main picture: jimmywayne / Flickr;
-earthhopper / Flickr.
  • 1. NOLA is an acronym for New Orleans.
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