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Home > Publications > Quill > Quill Feature: News Hole


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Thursday, December 3, 2009
Quill Feature: News Hole

Readers reflect on newspapers' eroding coverage and what might fill the void

By Daniel Axelrod

Editor's Note: This article contains updated information on legal issues between the Journal Inquirer and The Harford Courant that were unavailable at press time for the print edition.

Guy Santagate had an “eerie feeling” in July as the Claremont, N.H., city manager eyed the vacant spot where The Eagle Times normally occupied his desk.

To cover nearly $4.7 million of debt, the newspaper’s owner, Harvey Hill, had abruptly shuttered the 175-year-old, 9,400-circulation daily and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy just three days earlier.

“Newspapers used to be the cops on the beat; now they’re just mall cops.” -- Alan Mutter, blogger at Reflections of a Newsosaur.

Over on Airport Hill Road, North Country Smokehouse owner Mike Satzow missed the paper’s obituaries when it took him days to learn that a prominent resident had died.

“It was a real loss when the paper wasn’t there,” Satzow said. “We were shocked and appalled. It was like losing a part of your family.”

But in a surprise move for a paper dead 90 days, the Huntingdon, Pa.-based Sample News Group bought and reopened The Eagle Times in October with a smaller staff.

Communities elsewhere haven’t been so lucky. Readers across the country are feeling the effects of newspaper staff cuts and closures, and those who still read the news in print wonder what might fill the growing coverage void.

BY THE NUMBERS

“Newspapers used to be the cops on the beat; now they’re just mall cops,” said Alan Mutter, a journalism industry analyst known for the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur. “It’s not a foregone conclusion newspapers will survive into the future.”

More and more, that’s becoming a reality. More than 300 newspapers stopped printing from 2008 to 2009, with many closing and some moving entirely online, according to the industry-tracking blog Paper Cuts, which uses published reports and tipsters.

Compounding matters, some papers continue to amputate staff to pay debt for parent companies overleveraged from acquisition sprees in better times.

Compared with 2001 staffing levels, one in four newspaper newsroom jobs will vanish by the end of 2009, according to the Pew State of the News Media 2009 report.

The recession, along with the housing and auto industries’ collapses, have debilitated revenue from print ads and classified listings, which were already ill because of online competitors.

Meanwhile, readers are increasingly gravitating to free online news, and newspapers’ staff reductions give people little reason to buy papers, industry experts said.

Surveys find that fewer people of all ages, races and education levels are reading print papers. U.S. newspaper circulation recently hit its lowest level in 70 years, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ October data.

Sixty-one percent of the papers Pew surveyed reported reducing coverage. Such page cuts beget more staff reductions as papers need fewer reporters and editors to fill pages. U.S. newspapers shed 8,300 editorial jobs in 2007-08 alone, according to Pew.

“What happens when a newspaper has plundered its staff to the point it doesn’t do a good job anymore?” said John Morton, a Maryland-based newspaper analyst. “It’s unfortunate that the very thing papers need to succeed on the Internet, which is deep journalism, papers are undermining with these cuts.”

Though the big metro papers are still seeing profits from the low-single digit percentages to the teens, revenue is often sent to headquarters, not reinvested locally, Morton said.

For now, smaller papers are in a somewhat better financial position. Seventy-percent of America’s 1,400 dailies have a circulation below 50,000, according to Morton, and they often monopolize local advertising and depend far less on classified ad revenue.

But small papers are still endangered because they must replace a dying generation of readers, said industry blogger Alan Mutter.

In Claremont, a city of 13,000, The Eagle Times appealed to its new owner, George “Scoop” Sample, because it is based in a regional shopping area, said the paper’s new publisher, Harry Hartman.

Sample Group also was impressed that three regional dailies and two fledgling weeklies swooped in to fill local news demand when the Eagle closed.

Hartman’s simple strategy is to run an efficient operation and supply hyper-local coverage of every “quilting award” and “chicken dinner.” Sample Group closed two of the Eagle’s sister weeklies, saved two others and cut full-time staff to 38 from 62.

Two weeks in, readers flooded Hartman with positive e-mails. The paper responded with a section of free obituaries for all the locals who died during its closure.

“I firmly believe this paper will sell itself with good editorial content and ads that generate floor traffic for our advertisers,” Hartman said. “We’re not doing brain surgery here. We’re putting out a paper.”

And while Hartman believes in the Eagle, many metro papers lose readers as briskly as they drop coverage.

HANGING A ‘BLACK AWNING’

In Connecticut, readers said drastic staff and page cuts explain how America’s longest continuously published newspaper, The Hartford Courant, lost its way.

One thing would spur commercial litigator and blogger Emily Gianquinto, 29, of Hartford, to read the Courant.

“News,” said Gianquinto, who co-writes at liveinhartford.org. Gianquinto canceled her subscription because the paper kept slashing coverage.

She doesn’t visit the Courant’s Web site either because of “annoying” popup ads and Associated Press stories she said she can find anywhere.

“You know the old adage about ‘sunlight being the best disinfectant’? It’s meaningless without news coverage.” – Conn. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

The Courant declined interview requests for this article. But, lately, it has gone from watchdog to being watched as its bankrupt parent company, Chicago-based Tribune Co., reduces staff to manage a $13 billion debt.

At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, the Courant had at least a half-dozen zoned editions and as many well-staffed bureaus across the state, said Paul Stern, a former deputy state editor who accepted a 2008 buyout offer.

But the 245-year-old broadsheet laid off 100 employees in February, halving its newsroom since the beginning of 2008.

It reduced newsroom staff again five months later in June 2008, dropping to 175. At the same time, the paper announced a 25 percent reduction in weekly news pages, which dropped to 206 from 273.

Circulation has fallen too, dipping nearly 20 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. It stood at 155,540 as of March.

Last year, the paper quickly abandoned widely panned redesigns.

And, last September, it was in the news again apologizing for months of plagiarizing other Connecticut papers' work.

Striving to be a "local news aggregator," The Courant's depleted staff covered the state by publishing rivals' news, barely rewriting it and often omitting attribution, said Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

The Journal Inquirer recently filed a lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court, accusing The Courant of "pirating" stories in violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and federal copyright law.

When the plagiarism controversy broke, some of The Courant's former staff felt vindicated thinking that previous cuts had damaged the paper's institutional integrity, said Stern, who runs the Hartford Courant Alumni Association and Refugee Camp blog.

“We were embarrassed that an institution we took so much pride in for being so professional and fair could be exposed to so much ridicule,” he added.

These days, bloggers such as Gianquinto and Aldon Hynes, who runs orient-lodge.com, try to fill a small portion of the news void at their sites.

“There have always been news gaps; they’ve just gotten worse,” Hynes said. “But good reporting is a lot of work, and I just don’t believe volunteer, citizen journalists can fill all the gaps.”

That’s not to say that some sites, such as NewHavenIndependent.org by former Connecticut newspaper reporter Paul Bass, aren’t trying.

Even so, Hynes — a former Wall Street IT executive who has blogged for noted Democratic candidates — has seen a big erosion in Connecticut’s legislative coverage.

And Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he’s worried about the diminishing ability of newspapers to hold lawmakers accountable.

“You know the old adage about ‘sunlight being the best disinfectant’?” Blumenthal said. “It’s meaningless without news coverage.”

Christine Stuart tries to hold government accountable by covering politics at CTNewsJunkie.com.

But, in February, after the Courant laid off longtime politics reporter Mark Pazniokas, Stuart wanted to “mourn the death of coverage” by hanging a black awning above steps to the state Capitol building’s press room.

As reporters depart, Stuart gets more prestigious desks in the press room.

“I can’t say enough positive things about the way journalism is headed and the ability of the public to participate and give you instant feedback.” -- Christine Stuart, editor of CTNewsJunkie.com.

The former newspaper reporter at the Hartford Advocate and the Journal Inquirer subsists by writing legal abstracts part-time. And she breaks even on her Web site by forgoing a salary, charging for online ads and employing freelancers and interns.

David Boardman, The Seattle Times executive editor, sees sites like Stuart’s as “new creatures in the news ecosystem,” ideal for symbitotic relationships with papers.

Like Boardman, Stuart remains optimistic about journalism’s future.

“I can’t say enough positive things about the way journalism is headed and the ability of the public to participate and give you instant feedback,” Stuart said.

But she admits local news sites don’t have the institutional clout of papers, though some readers said endless cutting continues to erode newspapers’ power.

‘A THOUSAND FLOWERS’

Denver City Council member Doug Linkhart recalls the days when two big dailies each sent two reporters to his office regularly. Now, he sometimes hears from one reporter.

And there’s a good chance that reporter is less experienced or missing some of the institutional knowledge of the higher-paid veterans who were laid off, he added.

“They essentially print press releases,” Linkhart said. “It’s really ideal for someone in power” to hide things.

From politicians to public relations practitioners and the public, Colorado residents are adjusting to life with less coverage since E.W. Scripps Co. closed the Rocky Mountain News in February. And they’ve noticed changes at The Denver Post.

Denver-based MediaNews Group, the Post’s privately held parent company, has repeatedly denied it is considering bankruptcy despite $1 billion in debt as of Dec. 31, 2007. Yet it, too, has had to cut staff.

Post Editor Greg Moore bristles at talk of reduced news coverage.

With the Rocky’s closure, “there are half as many reporters in Denver as there were in February,” Moore said. “Of course you’re going to miss that.”

Recounting recent investigations, Moore said the Post still delivers compelling print and online products despite cutbacks.

He acknowledged that “the days of having two or three people at city hall are gone,” and the paper has shrunk from 16 reporters covering the suburbs five years ago to “probably two.”

But he said the Post cut staff, including business reporters, to save other valuable news coverage, and the paper also has hired several prominent Rocky staffers.

Nonetheless, Bret Goodman misses “the voices” of all Rocky reporters, and he longs to see two Denver editorial pages taking opposing sides of an issue.

“I know a lot of people who prefer to read news on the Internet, tree huggers who worry about recycling, and they don’t want to pay for (the news),” said the 49-year-old owner of Jerri’s Tobacco Shop & Fine Wines in Denver. “For me, the newspaper is a work of art done by a number of people, and the Internet is a guru running a Web site and writing five or six articles.”

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, Sarah Behunek, who handles the business school’s public relations, held the first media day in four years in which college staff outnumbered reporters.

Today, she said she is proud to work with two colleagues who won Pulitzers as Colorado journalists, but she feels for the Coloradans who’ve lost the good newspaper work they produced daily.

In the new Denver media environment, City Council member Carol Boigon said she respects local reporters but thinks they work too hard covering multiple beats.

As a result, too many stories are “reduced to horse race coverage,” said Boigon, a former newspaper reporter.

Adding more depth to media coverage is what dozens of Denver blogs aspire to do daily with news coverage ranging from amateur posts to formal journalism operations.

Former Rocky staffers launched two online news outlets, The Rocky Mountain Independent and InDenverTimes.com, but they’ve faced high hurdles. The Independent quickly failed, and InDenverTimes operates with help from local investors after attracting just 3,000 of the 50,000 paid subscribers it wanted.

TheColoradoIndependent.com, on the other hand, operates with foundation funding and individual donors. The Center for Independent Media, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, runs the site and five other online news outlets around the country to promote citizen journalism.

For his part, Moore welcomes other local news Web sites in Denver and views them as an asset to journalism.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom,” said the Post editor, who added that he just hopes the public will realize a free press “isn’t free.”

GOING PAPERLESS

Ultimately, no editor or expert wants to predict what newspapers will look like in five years, let alone in 20.

Most envision some big metro newspapers ending paper editions, burdened by high costs for staff, printing and distribution. Others think smaller dailies and weeklies will print longer, but they’ll only forestall tough decisions.

The experts, editors and readers interviewed for this story predict:

-A rich, online news experience of for-profit and non-profit news sites of all shapes and sizes.

-A mix of online news from foundations, professional and amateur sites and big papers capitalizing on their brands to create and aggregate news.

-Ever closer collaboration between papers, competitors and readers to generate content, avoid redundant stories and pool coverage resources.

-Newspapers switching to online-only operations or printing less often, but releasing thicker copies with more local news and investigative pieces.

-Media with lower margins based less on advertising and more on circulation and new revenue streams. Some revenue also could come from pricier print editions and services that let readers selectively pay for news.

Seattle has become a test case for many new journalism initiatives.

It too has dozens of community news Web sites. And, in a closely watched move, New York-based Hearst Corp. converted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to an online-only format in March.

Besides reducing a 150-member newsroom to 20 and adding advertising sales staff, the Post-Intelligencer ditched traditional newsroom titles and trained all newsroom staff to write, edit and manage the site.

SeattlePI.com executive producer Michelle Nicolosi doesn’t know if her site, which she said is hitting its targets to become profitable, portends the future of big-city papers.

But she does think it’s already a success among users, who she said flood the site with compelling news stories and entertaining posts for 200 blogs.

Plus, SeattlePI.com is still among the 30 most-visited U.S. newspaper Web sites, and it covers politics and major area companies well, Nicolosi added.

The Seattle Times, which formerly had a joint operating agreement with the P-I, is pursuing a different strategy. Its majority owner, the Blethen family, continues to publish a print edition.

And, in a landmark decision, the paper used Knight Foundation funding to ally and share content on its Web site with five neighborhood newsgathering sites.

“It’s very clear we can’t cover smaller communities of interest to the extent that some of the emerging blogs can,” Boardman said. “The key for us is to be a unifying force for all those communities — nobody else can be the ‘town square’ in the way that a newspaper can.”

The Times has faced its own challenges. Its newsroom staff has dipped from 375 to 210 since 2004.

“The difference is we’ve made reductions because they’re necessary for our survival, not to sustain obscene profits,” said Boardman, adding that cuts proportionately focused more on management, editors and designers.

But while so many new community news Web sites are good for the public, their producers often face a difficult dilemma, said Kery Murakami, a laid-off Post-Intelligencer reporter.

Murakami and several former P-I staffers run SeattlePostGlobe.org, but they’ve found revenue is inconsistent, and so far advertising and donations don’t cover living costs. Murakami subsists on unemployment checks and looks for communications jobs.

Things aren’t much better for newspapers’ Web sites, which still get pennies on the dollar for online versus print ads. That’s because many gave away online ads initially, plus some advertisers aren’t comfortable with existing metrics to value and quantify readership online.

Nonetheless, the Newspaper Association of America claims papers’ Web sites attracted more than one-third of all Internet users in the third quarter of 2009.

Harvard University media professor Alex Jones, author of the book “Losing the News,” said the journalism industry will solve such revenue questions, and a market for good journalism will remain. He noted that The San Diego Union-Tribune needed its now-closed Washington, D.C., bureau to investigate ex-U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham for corruption.

“I simply cannot believe intelligent people are not going to recognize there’s an absolute need for watchdog journalism,” Jones said. “This extreme pessimism about the future of newspapers is misplaced.”

Blumenthal thinks people who tell pollsters they wouldn’t miss newspapers are just being cynical.

“I recognize a lot of people say the really important use of papers is to stuff bird cages and wrap fish,” he said. “But if you said to people, ‘Could you get along without Congress?’ I suspect they’d say, ‘Yes.’”

For now, it’s up to academics to fill the small body of research on the effects of less newspaper coverage.

University of Chicago professors Matt Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro studied papers’ influence on presidential elections. They found newspapers “have a robust positive effect on political participation,” and they estimated that reading a paper causes 9 percent of nonvoters to vote.

In a widely publicized study, Miguel Garrido and Princeton professor Sam Schulhofer-Wohl examined the Kentucky suburbs left with The Cincinnati Enquirer as their sole daily after The Cincinnati Post closed in 2007.

Schulhofer-Wohl — a former journalist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald — found that, in the absence of The Cincinnati Post, voter turnout dropped and fewer candidates ran for municipal office. Incumbents also faced better re-election chances.

However, Schulhofer-Wohl warned that the study only applies to one market at a single point in time, and more research is needed.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper doesn’t need research to tell him the effects of newspaper cuts and closures.

“We’re losing reporters left and right; it’s an endangered species,” Hickenlooper said. “The bloggers fill up some part of the coverage gap, but it’s a staccato message by thousands of different voices. It’s powerful, but it’s really very different from a team of (newspaper) reporters uncovering the facts.”

Daniel Axelrod spent five years as a full-time newspaper reporter, most recently in Scranton, Pa., before moving into public relations in April 2009. Reach him at deaxelrod@msn.com

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