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Late Night: Print Fatalism Is Tiresome

It’s all over. Let’s all go home.

“The Times-Picayune stayed in the water with people when the cops and government left,” said Rusty Coats, a longtime newspaper executive who is now a media consultant. “They have a special relationship with the community. But anyone understands that you have to renegotiate your relationship when circumstances change.”

And circumstances have changed. In the broader newspaper industry, ad revenue has plunged more than 50% since 2005, while paper, printing and delivery costs rose.

Ad revenue dropping does not mean there’s not enough ad revenue, first of all. And costs rising doesn’t mean those costs can’t be covered. This is a perfect example of the dishonest conversation we’re having about newspapers right now and it frustrates me immensely. By themselves, those two “changes” mean nothing, especially coupled with this:

When advertisers buy print, they pay higher ad rates than they would for the web. That’s partly why The Times-Picayune collected $64.7 million in print ad revenue last year but only $5.7 million on its website, according to Kantar Media estimates.

I do not understand this. Look, I get making money isn’t as easy in print as it once was, but I’ve been hearing “print is dead” for 30 years, and in the cases where that’s come to pass, it’s not because of the almighty Internet so much as it’s because of greed and stupidity.

Are some publications making money solely online? Sure. I’m not bashing the Internet here. There are plenty of business models out there. Does that mean all publications can/should sacrifice current profitability (not to mention, you know, their public service missions and all that claptrap) to adhere to the consensus of a bunch of media consultants who think that because they read the Times on an iPhone, everyone can/does/will? I doubt it.

But then, I don’t think you should close a profitable business that’s doing some good. So what if print seems old-fashioned? So do a lot of things that we still do for people who want them. If you’re losing money and you’re not accomplishing what you set out to accomplish, then off with your head, I guess (though you’ll have to convince me first you haven’t tried everything there was to try), but to take something that’s going good and kill it off because somebody somewhere told you the wind was blowing this way instead of that? It’s premature at best and foolhardy at worst.

Expect others to follow. The Times-Picayune and the Alabama papers are actually only following the lead of papers in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan. “It’s not at all surprising that Detroit and New Orleans are in the vanguard of this, because those markets have had some fairly catastrophic problems,” Mr. Mutter said. “You’ll see this happen in markets that are economically less robust, where publishers don’t want to fight the headwinds of print and want to just get ahead of the migration to digital.”

What advantage does getting “ahead of the migration to digital” convey, exactly? If the “migration to digital” means cutting out your print distro and publishing everything everybody does online, which you already do, then we’re talking about four phone calls to cancel various contracts and you don’t need a lot of lead time for that. That’s not enough of a reason to murder the still-profitable arm of your operation, unless this whole thing is just a self-serving sideshow designed to pump up the bottom lines of media corporations.

Nah. Couldn’t be that.



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Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel is a 10-year veteran of the newspaper business. She publishes First Draft, a writing and politics blog, with her partners Holden, Jude and Scout. She is the author of the books Chicago's Historic Irish Pubs (2011, Arcadia Publishing, with Mike Danahey) and It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal, about a great liberal journalism institution (2007, Heritage Books). She also edited the anthology “Special Plans: The Blogs on Douglas Feith and the Faulty Intelligence That Led to War” (2005, William, James & Co.) Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Daily Southtown, Sirens Magazine, and Alternet. She lives in Chicago with her husband, two ferrets, and approximately 60 tons of books.