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Newspaper survival: Discard the traditions

Newspaper survival

Newspaper survival

Great newspapers have fallen and crumbled this year, and now two of the country’s most elite papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, have implemented dire cost-cutting measures on the same day. But to some, the Times and Post are still ignoring their core business problems by merely cutting salaries and conducting more buyouts and layoffs.

In January, the newspaper industry knew it was in a leaky boat, but not necessarily a sinking one. Newspaper people scoffed at an article in The Atlantic that outlined how the Times could go under by May.

But that was before the Seattle Post Intelligencer became a Web site produced by 20-somethings, the Rocky Mountain News and the Ann Arbor News folded, and it looked like a tombstone would be all that’s left of the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Thursday, two of the greatest newspapers anywhere crouched lower in their trenches.

The Times announced it was cutting 100 jobs from its business operation and that all staff will have their salaries cut by five percent. The newspaper has already borrowed $250 million from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, heavily cut its stock dividend and leased back its new headquarters.

The Washington Post, on the same day, announced that it was beginning the first of at least three additional buyout plans. Layoffs may follow. Last year, the newspaper cut the size of its newsroom staff by 100.

The Times predicted that the pay cuts would be temporary, and that if the economy improved, pay could rise back to pre-cut levels by 2010.

But that’s wishful thinking, argues Henry Blodget of The Business Insider. The Times’ internal memo was gracious in tone toward laid-off employees and optimistic about future pay. Blodget opined that a cold splash of water would have been kinder: “Eventually, when the economy recovers, some salaries might once again be raised to 2007 levels. Over the intervening years, however, at least 40 percent to 50 percent of the newsroom will be fired.”

Sarcasm aside, it may come to that. Blodget estimates that the Times could generate $200 million a year if it charged a modest fee for online content, approximately the same cost of running the organization’s current newsroom. Thus, Blodget finds that cutting the newsroom staff in half, along with new online revenue, is a potentially tempting business model.

Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Will Google Do?,” also believes the Times needs a drastic shift: He advises the newspaper to drop all metro coverage. “It is a national and an international paper. The Times should spin off its metro section and charge, oh, say, $4 a day for it.”

The Post needs to move in a similar direction, and also increase the sharing of resources it has already begun with the Baltimore Sun, according to Jarvis. “You just don’t need to have 15,000 people covering a political convention,” he said. “The Washington Post should be America’s newsroom in Washington.”

Jarvis said newspapers have a future, but they’ve got to discard a good many of their traditions. “I’m optimistic about the news business,” he said. “But if papers define themselves as traditional newspapers, that is a terrible mistake.”

–Michael Blankenheim

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