I saw it coming, but made up my mind I would hold out until BigBob said something. And then, a few weeks ago, he asked the question: “Is there really any point in continuing to subscribe to the newspaper?” We were standing in the kitchen looking at several editions of the Lodi News-Sentinel that we had tossed on the counter in recent days, still folded and bound by those trademark red rubber bands.
I could not remember the last time I had actually picked up an edition of our local newspaper and read it. For years now, I’ve been reading it online. In fact, it is my custom to read the Stockton Record and Sacramento Bee online. I scan the headlines, read the articles that interest me, close the browser window, and move on to the morning’s next task. Often, because I am a Type “A” multi-tasker, I skim a few stories while listening to voice mail messages and returning phone calls.
But until a few days later, when I screwed up my courage to apologize profusely and inform our hard-working carrier that we were canceling our subscription, there had never been a time in my life when, as a resident of Lodi, the sole newspaper published in our little village didn’t land on my doorstep six days each week. And for many years, we faithfully subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Stockton Record.
Our carrier was not surprised. In fact, she told me she had processed several cancellations by long-time subscribers in recent days. “A sign of the times,” she sighed.
Last Saturday, August 23, 2008, the publisher of the Lodi News-Sentinel, Marty Weybret, wrote a column explaining Why your newspaper, and local Web site, are struggling:
It’s time to share a not very guarded secret: This newspaper company is not immune to the industry’s illness.
We’re fighting two wars: the economy and the Internet.
Business is bad in the newspaper industry. In fact, Marty’s dad, Fred, who purchased the newspaper and took up residence in Lodi in 1949 at the urging of my mentor, the late Nat Brown, Jr., says the current advertising slump is the worst he has ever seen. Some of the biggest retailers in the area — Costco and Wal-Mart, among them — do not buy advertising at all. It’s another indicator, along with soaring foreclosure rates, record gas prices, massive layoffs in numerous industries, etc., of economic stress.
The current state of the American economy and information explosion are not challenging just small newspapers and magazines. On the contrary, all of the major newspapers have been struggling to update their business models in order to survive. The Sacramento Bee announced on Tuesday, August 26, 2008, that it offered “voluntary buyouts to the majority of its full-time employees Monday as its advertising slump continues and the newspaper scrambles for additional ways to cut costs.” Similar offers were made to employees of the Modesto Bee, Fresno Bee, Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader, Kansas City Star, Wichita (Kansas) Eagle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram, all also owned by McClatchy. Just two months ago, The Bee “eliminated 86 jobs as part of an across-the-board layoff ordered by its parent, The McClatchy Co. of Sacramento. A companywide wage freeze was imposed by McClatchy two weeks ago. In July, The Bee unveiled a smaller print format, another way to save money. But the economic downturn has deepened, and The Bee, like other papers, is still experiencing declining revenue.” Among the factors cited by the Sacramento newspaper were the recent bankruptcies of major advertisers like the Room Source, Linens N Things, and Mervyns.
This crisis in the newspaper industry is also due to the way in which we communicate with each other these days. We are no longer satisfied to wait until the morning edition is delivered to find out what is happening in the world. As a child, if we heard sirens or a neighbor stopped by to tell us of something happening in town, my father always said, “Well, we’ll read about it in the newspaper in the morning.” Not any more.
These days, we just open a browser window and expect to find up-to-the minute coverage of any newsworthy event. Most of us have Internet and television-enabled phones and tablets so we don’t even have to be near a computer to check the headlines.
All of which leads us to consider the people whose lives are impacted by these industry transitions, many of them writers — reporters — who are losing their livelihoods. What will become of those “200 of the 240 full-time-equivalent news staffers” at The Sacramento Bee who were offered buyouts so that the paper can “focus more intensely on ‘the most important areas of coverage?'” Will they find other jobs in the newspaper industry? Perhaps some of them will. Others might find employment working for online publications. It’s a good bet that many will have to earn their daily bread doing something other than writing.
Weybret acknowledges that the local newspaper’s misfortunes have impacted its work force, as well. “We’ve left some positions unfilled as people have left, and we’ve even had a couple of lay-offs,” he wrote. But there’s reason for hope: “We’re not in as bad shape as the big chains in our area who all seemed to buy out competitors using wheelbarrows of borrowed money just before the mortgage crisis hit.” Still, the Lodi News-Sentinel is “losing a little money.” So its employees have to be anxious about their futures.
I could easily have been one of those employees because when I was entering college, I gave serious consideration to a major in journalism, given how much I enjoyed being a member of my high school’s newspaper and yearbook staff. Ultimately, though, I segued into accounting and, finally, a legal career in which my love of writing has translated into success.
I will never read online newspapers and magazines with quite the same eyes, however. I will be thinking about the folks who labor to bring me the news, hoping that their employment futures are secure and they are able to provide for their families.