"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Newspapers' decline accelerates after a lull

"Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel," the old quote goes. I supplied that to Neil Thielke before he went up onstage for an emceeing stint at East Side Park for one of those Thursday night things. The idea is, you'd better be careful taking on a newspaper.
Historically it's true. But newspapers are not having to acquire as many barrels of ink these days. Talk of newspapers' decline swelled about ten years ago. For a time it seemed like Hollywood worrying about television. The big screen was hardly going to be wiped out, despite television's burgeoning presence.
Any time certain experts are predicting in arm-waving fashion, the demise of an American institution, be skeptical. If something is really destined to go away, it will just happen. There will be no air of sensation about it. The reason: people will have just found the means to an alternative way of getting things done.
Newspapers are in a genuine pattern of decline at present. Ten years ago the erosion was evident but not totally destructive. The histrionics were shown by well-known media analysts Michael Wolff and Jeff Jarvis, and they got a fair amount of attention for their pronouncements. A cynic might say that was what they were looking for.
I occasionally checked Jarvis' blog called "Buzzmachine." He does have a lot to offer. He is an academic with true insights. But I caught his post about how newspaper preprint advertising was going to disappear within three years. Preprint ads are those circulars or inserts that are stuffed in papers, a pile of which you'll find in each week's Morris paper. People who don't do a lot of consuming are annoyed by this. You have to deal with these, i.e. dispose of them. Maybe it would have been nice to see preprint ads gone within Jarvis' suggested timeline. My goodness, this was several years ago, and he suggested a timeline of three years.
Jarvis said he had industry contacts (i.e. in the industries that advertise) who were consulting with him on this. Ah, I've been in the media neighborhood long enough to recognize posturing when I hear it. I remember when our local Pamida store (of the famous potholes in the parking lot) went into arm-waving over disgust with an upcoming advertising price hike. I recall our advertising rep quoting the store management as saying they'd refuse to pay it. But they must have ended up paying it. The squawking was just the usual back and forth of business.
Those polluting advertising circulars have hung in there for years, getting blown into rain gutters and all over the place.
Michael Wolff, a biographer of Rupert Murdoch among other things, many years ago said 80 percent of newspapers would go under within 18 months. Boy, that really would have been news. It would have been spectacular which is precisely the reason why we should have been skeptical.
The media overreacted tremendously to the closure of two newspapers that were outliers, not in the standard media market monopoly model. Those two papers, as you might recall, were the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News. I sneered as I saw the likes of network news anchors report these closures as if they were reflecting a broad tailspin of the print media, something that would happen soon. Instead we saw the print media go into some retrenchment but (apparently) land on their feet. The whistling past the graveyard subsided for quite a long time.
We'd read occasionally about layoffs. But all the familiar old titles were still pretty much around. Panic over? Well, no. The trend of pressure on those austere old titles just needed more time. Changes in popular behavior just don't happen so suddenly.
We can see the renewed panic on the micro level in Morris MN. Maybe you haven't noticed that the Morris Sun Tribune has gotten smaller yet again. Recently a pattern of 20-page papers has developed, down from the long-time average of 24. Of course, the paper used to come out twice a week (during my long tenure there). The page size has been shaved several times. Less has not been more.
The paper has been trying to cling to its legacy (up-in-years) customers who just assume that "getting the paper" is part of standard life. This treading water has worked to a degree. But the older generations are naturally moving on, forcing adjustments with churches and myriad other threads of our society. People are rapidly moving from the traditional funeral/burial format to cremation and even natural burial. An advantage is to save virtually thousands of dollars. Money talks, as my old friend Glen Helberg always implored. Glen chose cremation. I am deeply regretful that my family didn't make that commitment.
We have not had the Morris newspaper delivered to our home for several years. When I left the Sun Tribune I tried buying a subscription but was turned down - I was told I'd just get a complimentary copy, apparently in recognition of my years of yeoman service. After a couple years, I was simply cut off. I breathed a sigh of relief when learning I was in good company: Jim Morrison told me his father Ed got cut off at the same time. Obviously the paper staff had a meeting to go down a list of people getting "comp" subscriptions and started crossing off names.
Forum Communications has never been known for its class - it is a Machiavellian business. Well, congratulations. You guys are also part of a dying business. It may not have happened ten years ago but sure as shootin' is happening now.
The Sun Tribune's shrinkage down to 20 pages happened in the weeks leading up to Christmas, historically a robust time of year for newspaper advertising. Obviously the uptick in newspaper ad spending did not happen this year. Instead the hole got deeper.
The newspaper will harass its news employees as if they're the problem. But of course they aren't. They're scapegoats. Management will turn to the overblown sports department and decide there's an issue there. Thrashing around over sports coverage issues is a constant. Once in a meeting when sports was brought up, Jim Morrison got a resigned look in his eyes and said "I don't want to get in a big discussion about sports."
The Sun Tribune newspaper had a chronic problem through the years I was there, of employees who had an emotional investment in local sports. This group included (most notably) the advertising manager, to whom Morrison was so deferential, she really should have been general manager. But then what would Jim's job be?
The newspaper has scrambled by deciding to charge for obituaries, an unethical move no matter how you look at it. I don't need an obituary of a family member in the local paper. A death is a private family tragedy and not a community spectacle.
Shoppers demonstrated in 2016 that they're doing ever more of their holiday shopping online. Retailers' spending on paper advertising declined more than 30 percent in the holiday season. It was the biggest decline in at least four years. The measure declined 15 percent in 2015.
Jon Swallen of Kantar Media said: "Newspapers have been a challenged medium with declining circulation and revenue."
Those preprint ads that shower us each week, mostly from non-Morris businesses, are in fact fading in use now, quite belatedly following Jarvis' forecast. Swallen said: "Retailers may have reached a tipping point in terms of their use of newspapers and share of ad budget."
And the esteemed Paul Gillin of "Newspaper Death Watch" comments: "After a spate of closures and layoffs in the latter part of the last decade, the newspaper industry appeared to find its footing over the last few years. But now that oasis of stability may be drying up."
More: The 13th annual Pew Research State of the News Media Report documents another year of alarming declines for newspapers - the worst since the 2008-09 recession.
We are in fact adjusting our habits so newspapers are not an assumed, standard part of our lives. We are moving on. So, once that process has been completed, it simply will not be "news" because we will have adjusted and acquired new habits.
We moved on from high-button shoes, didn't we?
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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