American newspapers, Utah’s included, are facing their hardest times since Gutenberg invented moveable type. When you think of the process of putting out a newspaper in the digital age, it does look archaic. Loggers cut down trees, which are trucked to a pulp mill and turned into truck-sized rolls of paper.
The paper has to be hauled to every community press to be rolled across ink covered printing plates and assembled into finished newspapers. Then trucks haul them to neighborhoods and kids and adults hand carry or drive them to each individual doorstep.
Local television stations distribute their content by hurling electrons from broadcast towers atop mountains, or through cables strung to every home or by bouncing their signals off of satellites. And where viewers used to be able to count all the available TV signals on one hand, some cable and satellite channels are now numbered into the 800s.
Radio stations also face proliferating channels, both free and subscription based, which promise an ever-widening selection of narrowing content. “Broad” casting is yesterday’s news. Now it’s “narrow” casting and everyone is searching for their place in the spectrum.
“Legacy” media, which are traditional means of communication that existed before the Internet—broadcast and cable television, radio and newspapers—are nearing old age. Even television is approaching its 60s, and it’s the youngest in that group. Profits are falling, staffs are being cut and everyone is searching for a new business model in a world where on a weekly basis, digital forms of information distribution seem to spawn new delivery platforms.
NBC Entertainment Co-chairman Marc Graboff told an industry conference this spring “No one really knows where [media is] going,” and questioned how much longer there could be four networks programming 22 hours each, seven days a week.
In radio, station managers are replacing employees with new technology and developing Internet sites, which can expand their reach beyond the Salt Lake Valley.
As for Utah’s top two newspapers, The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, both are beefing up their online editions and making steep staff cuts. And that’s the good news. Those moves are designed to keep these newspapers in business a little longer, since in other cities, a time-tested publication seems to go down about every week. From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to the Rocky Mountain News to the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe, major newspapers are teetering on or going into bankruptcy. Too big to fail? Not anymore. Major newspapers are becoming the Chryslers and GMs of media.
“I think we’ll be printing and delivering 10 years from today,” Deseret News editor Joe Cannon says. “Twenty years? I don’t know.”
Publish or Perish
The urgency to find a new business model is most acute in the daily newspaper business, where the economic collapse has hastened the search for answers.
“I personally think there’s not been much like this since maybe the Industrial Revolution,” The Salt Lake Tribune editor Nancy Conway told her own reporter Paul Beebe in a March story highlighting the future of The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. The story mentioned that The Salt Lake Tribune readership is declining. At the Deseret News, readership is still growing, but probably due to Cannon’s intentional content tilt toward stories of interest to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Research has shown that non-LDS individuals tend not to read the Deseret News, so Cannon is catering even more to an LDS readership. Cannon, like most everyone in newspapering today, is looking to online editions as the future. “The trend is clearly away from printing,” he says. “The costs of operating are considerably less than for the newspaper.”
Newspapers originally saw online editions as a necessary nod to technology, giving little thought in the 1990s that they would one day need to monetize their Web presence. Web editions were free and readers got used to receiving the entire paper online at no cost. A new study from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication found that previous paying subscribers were dropping the print edition for the free online edition, creating revenue losses in subscriptions and advertising rates.
“We’re clearly now seeing a path to the end of the printed daily newspaper,” says Jeffrey Cole, the head of the Annenberg School’s Center for a Digital Future. “Only those papers that can move decisively to the Web will survive.”
Broadcasters used to snicker that newspapers delivered “yesterday’s news tomorrow.” Now, newspapers, including Salt Lake’s, are in the breaking news business, constantly updating Website news and visual content. The Salt Lake Tribune site has gone from reproducing stories from the print edition to creating original content, adding breaking news and even showing television news-style video from The Associated Press. The most tech savvy newspapers are delivering that breaking news via e-mails, Twitters, text messages and every other delivery channel they can use.
Still, the problem of making money off of the Web remains. At the Deseret News, only 10 percent of income comes from its Website, most of it in the form of banner advertising. “I think there’s revenue out there online,” Cannon says. “Over time, that will change.” Cannon envisions a time when advertisers use technology to figure out what each computer user is interested in by what stories they read. By keeping records of what each computer IP address looks at, it can sell highly targeted (and thus more valuable) advertising to individual users. For example, an online reader who keeps clicking on fishing stories would be sent online ads from Cabelas and the like, or receive messages from fishing guides and outfitters.
The Salt Lake Tribune sells an exact electronic facsimile edition of the printed paper, so readers can see how editors prioritized the stories. It also started UtahsRight.com, an online database of public information that’s hard to pry out of government, like government salaries and crime statistics.
Salt Lake’s newspapers are also trying to build revenue by publishing and printing more than just the two dailies. MediaOne is the joint business operation for both papers, selling the advertising, running promotions, printing and distributing the actual papers at its new West Valley City printing plant. The Salt Lake Tribune gets 58 percent of MediaOne’s profits and the Deseret News 42 percent, based on their relative circulations.
In addition to printing the Salt Lake papers, MediaOne prints the BYU and University of Utah student papers, the Park Record, the Provo Herald and the regional editions of USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. It also fills niches with highly targeted publications like In This Week, an entertainment guide that’s published in print and online. Today nearly 30 percent of MediaOne’s revenues come from print products other than The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News.
This spring KUTV weather forecaster Roland Steadham suddenly disappeared from 2 News, only to pop up on ABC4 News a few days later, bumping Marti Skold from her prime time slot to mornings. Channel 2’s outdoor guru Reece Stein is gone, and so are long-time news anchors Terry and Susan Wood and Randall Carlisle. They are just the high profile dismissals as local television faces changing realities. Stations nationwide are doing more newscasts with less people, and turning to technology to eliminate even more jobs. Today in most news studios, the cameras are robotic, changing positions based on pre-set signals.
“More people are getting news from alternate sources,” KSL-TV News Director Con Psarras observes. “All the old givens are disappearing.” Thirty years ago, all you could do with a TV was watch television on a limited number of over-the-air signals. Then cable and satellite TV systems brought in more channels, and the lineup keeps growing. There are multiple news channels, a couple of food channels, home improvement channels and miscellaneous channels from fishing to horse training and polka dancing. The likes of TIVO, video games, Internet surfing and mail-arrived DVDs has equaled a surge of competition for local televisions.
Besides cutting staff, TV stations have added more local news shows—local shows are cheaper than buying syndicated programming. The mantra of “more with less” has been around broadcasting for more than a decade. Staffs shrink even as more work is piled on them.
TV news is wildly competitive, but that is cracking. Some markets are pooling cameras and reporters for stories every station will cover, such as press conferences and scheduled events like grand openings. In other markets, like Denver, stations are sharing helicopters. In shared situations, each station paints its logo and colors on one side and uses an outboard camera to show “its” helicopter flying by the skyline. Imagine looking straight at a helicopter and seeing the red and white of Sky Two on the left and the blue of Chopper Five on the right.
Psarras thinks local stations will survive because they fill a unique niche. Watching the news is an ingrained multi-generational habit that appeals to the young and old alike. There is also tremendous brand loyalty. Viewers feel they know their favorite anchors and tune in for them. Psarras points out that the 10 p.m. newscasts of channels 2 and 5 are the highest rated programs of the week, month in and month out, aside from “American Idol.” “Can there be four news stations in a market this size?” Psarras asks. “Can there be two newspapers? It’s hard to say. Not all will survive.”
Radio is the media source that has found profitability online. Radio has also found the most effective ways to do more with less both over the air and on the Internet. Take Simmons Media as an example. Simmons has 28 radio stations from Memphis to Missoula. “We’re not a radio company anymore,” says Craig Hanson, company president. “We’ve become a content company and we have to monetize it, promote it to new audiences and find efficiencies.”
Radio for the past two decades has aggressively pursued efficiencies. Hanson’s employee count was 120 in Salt Lake a few years ago. Through technology, it is down to half that today. One station has just one employee. Another station has a personality who does her show out of a home studio in Los Angeles. That’s also where the local traffic reports come from. When a traffic reporter at a Simmons station talks about a wreck on I-15, he’s sitting in LA monitoring the same data a traffic reporter in Salt Lake would use.
As for the Internet, Hanson says. “We used to just expose our product, but now we are activating and engaging listeners.” That builds brand loyalty and audience. Listeners can be anywhere in the world, downloading podcasts or listening online. Before each download, however, they have to watch a commercial.
Like Cannon, Hanson sees great value in knowing the audience right down to individual listeners. Radio can now implement the mentioned Cabelas’ idea: learn the interests of each individual IP address, and target specific online ads their way.
“We have embraced the Internet, and have a better opportunity than most.”
Survival of the Fittest
The greatest fear today is for the future of hard-hitting, local journalism. Editor Cannon says the decline of fresh and accurate reporting is one of the biggest issues amid all the turmoil. “The best journalism comes from reporters for newspapers. Today there’s almost no newspaper in America that makes enough money to sustain its newsroom.”
The Salt Lake Tribune editor Nancy Conway expressed the same concern for her newspaper. “It isn’t so much that we need to save [newspapers] or a particular product, but we need to save journalism,” she told reporter Paul Beebe.
One idea that’s gaining a lot of attention, if not traction, is to turn American journalism into an endowment-supported non-profit enterprise, where foundations grant money to support reporters so they can dig out the hard-hitting stories that are time consuming and expensive to produce.
“Legacy media, despite what every-body’s saying, will continue to provide the top quality journalism into the future,” says University of Utah communications professor Robert K. Avery. “We may have to figure out a new business model that requires public funding. [But] we have to make sure legacy media remain viable—that’s the model that ensures we have a public watchdog.”