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Not-So-Big News 

Idaho's shrinking newspapers look at a brave new (online) world

When Idaho's lawmakers gather in January, they'll do so in the cramped quarters of the old Ada County Courthouse while the Capitol building is under renovation, and the grousing has already begun. People complain of smaller offices, fewer bathrooms and less room for participation from all sides. For everyone from senators to staffers, the Legislature promises to be a snug affair.

The group of reporters from various Idaho media outlets who track the state's lawmaking body will likewise be housed in smaller quarters. Instead of the labyrinthine basement of the old Capitol, reporters are likely to be parceled into a single small room.

It won't matter much. There won't be that many of them.

Idaho's newspaper army has shrunk. From Coeur d'Alene to Idaho Falls, newspapers have been steadily tightening their belts in the past several years, trying hard to adapt to new economic realities and the changing tastes of their dwindling audience.

"It's probably the worst time for newspapers since I've been in the business," said Steve Smith, the editor of the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review.

Smith has a particular reason to despair. He was recently forced to reduce his newsroom staff by 14 people, including seven reporters in various state bureaus. The paper is now going to a single edition, eliminating the Idaho edition.

"It's devastating for journalism in North Idaho," wrote Erica Curless, a Spokesman-Review reporter who is also president of the Spokane Editorial Society, a union for the paper's newsroom staff, in an e-mail to BW. "Readers no longer will get the coverage they deserve or expect."

Before the layoffs, Smith's newsroom held a staff of 137 for a 92,000-circulation paper.

The impact will even stretch south to Boise, where the Idaho Statesman regularly reprints articles by Spokesman-Review reporters. The Associated Press also redistributes Spokesman-Review reporting in wire-service reports picked up by other newspapers.

In the report done by its own staff, Spokesman-Review publisher Stacey Cowles said Cowles Co., a privately held media and real estate company, was heeding the demands of a tightening and shifting marketplace. Traditional advertisers were opting out of advertising, and other large companies that had moved into the Spokesman-Review's market area were unlikely to buy the newspaper ads that guarantee a newspaper will have open pages upon which to print articles.

"We're in a transition," Cowles told his newspaper. "We're unsure where it is to."

Smith said he's increasing workloads, across his smaller newsroom. Many reporters who were dedicated to a single area of coverage, or "beat," are now multi-tasking.

"We had a single reporter covering Spokane County. Now, Spokane County is a half-time beat," he said. "You're missing news, no matter how hard your reporter works."

It's not just quantity; Smith frets about how this might affect the quality of news his staff develops.

"This part really has me worried," Smith said. "In both states, Idaho and Washington, we deal in government cultures that thrive on secrecy." He noted a case in which his paper spent "tens of thousands of dollars" in court, trying to extract government records that public officials were hoping to keep quiet.

Roger Plothow, the publisher of the Idaho Falls Post-Register, said he, too, is worried about how to get good journalism out of a smaller budget.

"If you consider television news high-quality journalism, then you'll get what you expect," he said. "But if you want in-depth coverage of the state and the government, and investigative journalism, the current business model won't pay for it."

Which is just the sort of thing that keeps Smith, an editor of a paper with a history of tracking down misdeeds among its elected officials, up at night.

"Citizens will be less informed and less able to interact with government life in a way that's meaningful," Smith said. "That's a crime. That's the worst impact."

THE WAY THEY ARE

The Spokesman-Review announcement was the most dire, but newsrooms across Idaho are smaller than they were before. That includes the Idaho Statesman, which over the past several months has declined to fill some positions as they go vacant, including a state reporter position and a business section editor.

But Vicki Gowler, editor of the Statesman, said her newsroom underwent a major reorganization in September and that it isn't as simple as mere attrition. The reorganization includes more focus on getting material online, and faster. The shrinking statehouse reporting team, she said, is due more to the shrinkage of the statehouse itself than to financial issues. Still, she acknowledged, "this is the most challenging time I've seen as an editor."

In Lewiston, Paul Emerson, the managing editor of the Lewiston Tribune, said that even though his smaller market is different, and more stable than others in the state, he's still delaying new hires as long as he can. The Spokesman-Review layoffs, he said, sent shock waves through his newsroom and others.

"Everybody pays attention when something like that happens," Emerson said.

Over at the Post Register, Plothow acknowledges that his paper's newsroom is "down a couple of bodies from where it was a couple of years ago." It's a trend he's seen across the state.

"It's indisputable that that's the truth," Plothow said. "You're seeing a real shakeout."

Nor are Idaho papers alone in the trend. If the mainstream media had a story to tell about itself this year, it would be the tale of trimmed staff. The day that Smith laid off his staff, three other newspapers in the country made announcements of bigger cuts, including the Houston Chronicle, which laid off about 40 people. Just last week USA Today announced it would be shedding 45 journalists in an attempt to save money.

"Unfortunately, revenue has not kept pace, and we're now facing the same cutbacks that so many other news organizations have already experienced," wrote Ken Paulson, the USA Today editor, in a memo to staff that was posted online. In its blog about "the future of newspapers," the Newspaper Association of America features post after post about the trials and tribulations of modern American newspapers. At the American Journalism Review, a feature article in the latest issue is about newspapers in media-savvy San Francisco taking a beating in circulation. On the Poynter Institute's popular media blog Romenesko Online, a regular part of the daily report is a story about one newspaper or another laying off staff.

John Morton, a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers. In a column in the most recent edition of the American Journalism Review, he writes that "the picture is not encouraging." After looking at results of publicly reporting newspaper companies, he found that total revenue for these companies was down nearly 5 percent, with operating profit down by more than 14 percent. 

"Newspapers' performance hasn't been this bad since the 2001 recession, when revenue slipped nearly 6 percent and profit was down more than 26 percent," Morton wrote. "And this year the nation is not in a recession. But the newspaper industry surely is."

Locally, the health of the Idaho Statesman's parent company, McClatchy Company, is up for debate. In a recent filing with the Securities Exchange Commission, the company reported third-quarter losses this year of $1.3 billion.

"We recognize that newspaper revenues have declined industry-wide and that values have dropped," said Gary Pruitt, McClatchy's chief executive officer, in a press release. Gowler said her paper's circulation is either flat or up only slightly, depending on the edition.

Still, some in Idaho are trying to put the latest situation into perspective.

"We've seen this before," said Rebecca Tallent, a University of Idaho journalism professor. "It's very cyclic. It's the nature of the beast."

Some argue that Spokane was merely the latest arrival to a dismal party of smaller news budgets.

"Spokane has always had a higher percentage of its budget invested in news," Plothow said. "There's been a bit of normalizing of the budget." That "normalizing" was a directive from Cowles to Smith to trim about $1 million from his $9 million annual newspaper budget, according to the Spokesman-Review's report.

"Our economic downsizing that is going on now is really two or three years behind the larger newspapers," Smith said. "It caught up with us."

But Plothow is seeing a shift much more fundamental than a mere rise and fall of annual fortunes. The quixotic and painful truth of the matter is that newspaper audiences are growing even as paying customers for a traditional newspaper are dwindling.

Start first, he said, with an industry that is now adjusting to new profit realities. Newspapers, he said, used to rely on 30 percent profit margins, a number he calls "obscene."

"Nobody gets to make that kind of money forever," Plothow said. "Probably, we shouldn't have."

The change is from advertising patterns, newspaper leaders say. Even as the city of Spokane experiences rapid growth in its sales tax volumes, Smith said, the growth is from non-advertising companies such as Costco, Wal-Mart or Cabela's, companies that typically don't spend money on newspaper advertising. General Motors regularly spends lots of money in so-called co-operative advertising, wherein it helps local dealers buy ads in their media market. But the company is slashing its co-operative advertising budget, Smith said, leading to fewer ads in his paper. Likewise, the massive retailer Macy's, typically one of the Spokesman-Review's largest advertisers, has also cut its ad budget recently, Smith said.

Plothow added that his own market's advertising spending has fallen in recent years. "Newspapers are a victim of that."

WHERE THEY'RE GOING

What is noticeable about many newspaper editors who face an uncertain future is how optimistic they are about the future of their profession, even if they don't understand its ultimate form. After decrying the loss of talented reporters and commiserating about the decline in advertising dollars, Smith nonetheless manages to express some brightness about his industry.

"I'm pessimistic about the future of the mass market daily newspaper as we know it today," Smith said. "On the other hand, I've never been more optimistic about the future of journalism."

The difference, he said, will be in the way journalism is delivered to customers.

"Stop focusing on the medium. It's going to change whether we like it or not," he said.

It already has. Smith and his staff are leaders in the online newspaper industry, with a number of different online innovations in the works that go far beyond mere staff blogs.

Locally, the Idaho Statesman has begun to post blogs from various staff and regularly reprints comments from anonymous online commenters on its op-ed pages. Gowler has also pushed her staff to think of reporting online quickly, then consider the print edition in a different manner, as more of catching up for readers to get context about a previous day's news.

Gowler isn't ready to accept the doom-and-gloom scenarios yet, she said.

"I think that the newspaper industry itself, because we're a cynical, second-guessing caustic lot, that we've created the perceptions people have about the newspaper industry," Gowler said. "When we just focus on circulation and we fail to look at readership, we're missing the story."

The other question facing purveyors of online news content is how to make money from the effort.

"It's just a different business model," Plothow said. "The problem is, we still have this huge investment in this manufacturing end of the old legacy business, what my friends call 'the dead wood' business."

Of course, the well-known problem h ere is how few of the newer generation of news consumers are interested in holding the dead wood version of a newspaper in their hands.

"I am astounded at how many of my journalism students don't read a daily paper," Tallent said. "They almost exclusively get their news off the Internet. These are the news consumers we're seeing right now."

The trend worries a longtime newsman like Emerson.

"There seems to be a growing segment of the population that doesn't seem to be paying attention to anything," he said. "I'm serious. Frankly, I'm worried about the state of our democracy."

But if the newer generation wants their news online, the newspapers that are scrambling to deliver it that way are still searching for a way to make it pay.

By and large, Idaho's newspapers that have begun moving online are doing so at no charge to customers. Doing so is a matter of debate among news providers. Online content at the Idaho Statesman is free. It is also free at other papers in the valley, including the Idaho Press-Tribune and the Twin Falls Times-News. Plothow said he's seen how that can affect readership of the paid newspaper. His 78-year-old mother, he said, was a longtime subscriber to the Times-News and was a limited user of the Internet. Until, he said, she went online one day and found most of the daily newspaper's content online, for free.

"It took her about 12 minutes to say, 'I'm done reading the paper in print,'" Plothow said. "So, off she went. I'm sure that story has been repeated over and over again."

It has, if newspaper circulation rates are any indication. Those numbers tend to be guarded carefully, but it's safe to say that circulation rates are down, or at least not climbing at the rate of population growth, at the state's major papers, including the Idaho Statesman.

So Plothow and his staff have made it harder for regular online users to get through to his paper's news. The paper's online content requires a password to access. Some 3,900 people have that password, he said, and roughly half of that number visit his paper's Web site every day. Of that 3,900, he said, about 700 people are online-only subscribers, who pay $6 per month just to get a password. The rest are print subscribers who get access to the online content for free.

"What's happening across the board is print circulation drops as online readership grows," Plothow said. "I don't know how much more logical that could be."

But while newspapers fumble about for their place online, they have found one true draw, especially smaller newspapers like Plothow's: local information. If a smaller community's newspaper continues to feed its populace with locally driven news, several editors argue, they'll draw readers willing to do more to access that news.

"The smaller you are, the more unique you are to your potential reader," Plothow said. "We can legitimately say, 'We're not going to put our stuff up for free. We know you can't go anywhere else to get it.'"

GOING LOCAL

Tallent said the drive for online news content by younger news consumers is all but reflective of their maturity level. As news readers age, she said, their priorities shift.

"It takes some of us a little bit to realize how important your local publication is," Tallent said. "I think that it has to do with taking on responsibility in general."

In Lewiston, Emerson's newsroom has seen little of the dramatic fluctuation in staffing and circulation that larger markets are seeing.

"We are having a decent year. We're making budget," he said. "We're a little bit isolated from some of the other economic factors that hurt larger newspapers."

The economy in Lewiston, and the fortunes of its major daily, he said, are "not red hot, and it doesn't really cool off either."

Newsroom turnover, he said, is low; he hasn't lost a major staffer for about 10 years.

"I've been in the newsroom 35 years, and I don't have seniority," he said with a laugh.

The paper lost a substantial advertiser when a local appliance store went out of business. But the online classified Web site Craigslist.com hasn't made many inroads into the Lewiston area either; the Tribune's classified advertising, employment and real estate advertising are doing well, he said. Circulation is actually up a notch. Emerson has seen some advertisers move away from print and onto the Web. But, he said, he's not convinced of the ultimate shakeout there.

"I think there's a lot of confusion for advertisers for where the hell they ought to put their money," he said.

As newspapers all around him hustle to diversify, change and gussy up their pages, the Tribune has steadily gone on doing the same sort of thing that it has done for years: printing local doings, whether they were earth-shattering or not.

"We have a lot of faces on the front of our news section that are not there because they're politicians," Emerson said.

Newspapers like the Tribune or the Post Register, he said, are sitting prettier than most major market dailies, he said, because advertisers and readers have fewer options.

"The Tribune can still deliver an ad and news to the majority of people who are in our major market area," he said. "Unless you buy direct mail, it's tough to buy better penetration than we offer."

If the Tribune's strategy ultimately works, it will not be because they are necessarily a savvy observer of local trends. Rather, it might be because they kept pace with the interest in online news access but never lost their focus on local coverage, whether or not it's breaking news.

THE NEXT GENERATION

None of the above brightens the prospects for a new breed of reporters. While editors still say there's work for young reporters, few openings exist at any of the state's newspapers and not because they haven't lost people.

But many of the newsroom managers interviewed for this story insist that while they're not hiring, the business is still worth pursuing.

"What I tell people is, the jobs are out there," Smith said. "Some are in traditional print newspapers. Some are strictly in the online world. If you're geographically mobile, and you're willing to look at media alternatives, the jobs are out there."

Tallent, who directs aspiring journalists at her school, said the market for good writers and smart news thinkers is always up.

"If you know how to write and write well, then you are going to be able to hopefully adjust for whatever is in the future. I don't see those skills changing. They still need to know how to ferret out what's really news."

But one segment of the media, albeit one that doesn't necessarily work hand in hand with the pursuit of knowledge, is growing. Tallent said many of her students are now looking closely at public relations.

"It seems to be a steady occupation," she said.

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