Tuesday, May 15, 2007

NYT Depicts Problems at WSJ, Minneapolis, CBS

The New York Times Business section Monday was a real tour-de-force on the intensifying problems with media profits and ratings. Special attention was directed to the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune (no relation to the Tribune Co.) and the lagging Katie Couric nightly news on CBS.

At least, it is clear, the L.A. Times has company in its misery, as declining advertising revenues and competition from the Internet increasingly are bringing in their wake more and more layoffs or prospects of layoffs.

"At The Wall Street Journal, Slim Margins Open Door to Murdoch," is the headline on the article by Richard Perez-Pena. He postulates that costs associated with the Journal's new Saturday edition could plunge Dow Jones, the controlling company, into the red this year. Also, he reports, the Journal's attempt to charge viewers of its Web site is holding down the number of viewers and perhaps costing the Journal Web advertising revenues. All this has opened the way to the Murdoch bid, which could end with a tragic loss of integrity and quality at the Journal. (I've been thinking of my former L.A. Times colleague Lee Hotz, who recently quit the Times and went to the Journal as a science columnist. He seems to have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. He is much too erudite for Rupert Murdoch if, God forbid, he obtains control of the Journal.)

The Journal has the second largest circulation of any paper in the country, just behind USA Today, and until recently it seemed on solid ground. But it has suffered a 4% decline in advertising this year when it had predicted gains. And it has heavy news-gathering expenses. The controlling Bancroft family has in the past been willing to accept less of a return to keep the Journal a great newspaper. Murdoch would not be at all so willing.

This article is most provocative when it discusses the Internet quandary. How do you cope with the challenges this new medium poses? Google is doing a tremendous business, mostly by selling ads, but newspapers have floundered around trying to come to grips with how to make the Internet lucrative as well as popular, as Wall Street and private investors put pressure on the big papers, including the New York Times as well for that matter, to turn a higher profit.

Some had felt that when the McClatchy papers sold the Minneapolis Star Tribune to Avista Capital, a private equity group, it meant the newspaper would make a turnaround. Avista executives at first talked growth, not layoffs, just as Sam Zell has been doing at the Tribune Co.

But, in fact, layoffs have been the order of the day at both companies. Avista seems to have underestimated the problems in Minneapolis, and the New York Times column by the usually astute David Carr implies these problems are so bad, the paper could go under. The paper's staff is protesting, but it is seemingly powerless to avoid a major downsizing of the paper.

And, apparently, losses of advertising and Internet problems are widely felt all across the country in the newspaper industry. They can no longer be ignored. But how to cope with them is a huge question.

The third article in the NYT Business section reported that CBS seems to be sticking with Couric, despite the fact her network news lags badly behind ABC and NBC and even about 4% below what CBS was getting in watchers before Couric took over as anchor. Last week, CBS reached its lowest point as a news network in 20 years. A sizable 29% minority of viewers say they do not like Couric, who at the Today program on NBC, was very popular. Only 51% say they like her. This compares with negative-positive numbers of about 20-60% for her competitors, ABC's Charles Gibson, and NBC's Brian Williams.

Bill Carter reports in this piece that an attempt to give CBS news a softer cast, and new features, has not worked, and the show is returning to a harder newscast with a new producer.

Carter remarks notably, "Ms. Couric's defenders ask whether a man taking the CBS job would have had his looks, hair, and clothes commented on in the same way as Ms. Couric's. Or if a single male anchor's social life would be almost daily fodder for the tabloids.

"'Maybe we underestimate the huge shift this represented," (Sean) McManus , (president of CBS News), said. "It was almost a watershed event to have a woman in that chair." He added, "There is a percentage of people there that probably prefers not to get their news from a woman."

I wonder whether the same group which the CBS News executive talks about in such a politically incorrect way will be any more accepting of a woman candidate for U.S. President (Hillary Clinton).

When you read the New York Times Business section Monday, in short, you couldn't escape the notion that the new media is in a revolutionary phase that will not be much to our likings.

The New York Times, by the way, is reporting these trends better than any other newspaper.


Some of the names on the confirmed buyout list at the L.A. Times, although the paper has not yet accepted them all, would represent a terrible loss for the paper and another confirmation of the consequences of having such an awful owner as the Tribune Co.

I'm particularly depressed by word that Frank Clifford, an outstanding environmental editor, plans to leave the Times, along with Shawn Hubler, Jean Guccione, Simon Li, J.A. Adande, Mike Kennedy, Iris Schneider and Lennie Laguire, the woman who first suggested that I write my consumer column. No paper can take such hits and be the same quality institution it has been before.

Also, it would be a shame to lose Jenifer Warren from the Sacramento bureau, when she has contributed such great stories about the crisis in California's prisons. I'm pleased, however, that Mark Arax has decided not to take the buyout.



Anonymous Matt Weinstock said...

"Journalists" will need to learn respect for Slim Margins. He is a tough taskmaster. Folks look for news from the media. Newspapers and network TV news are way too much like people magazine.

5/15/2007 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slim margins? Where? Not at more than 15%, as most public-stock newspaper companies sit. This is utter bull shit. 12 years ago, only Gannett made anything like 20%. Oh, Tribune came close, but nearly all from TV, not much from print.

And Lennie suggested you write consumer columns? Well that's the first thing I've heard that she did that was worth a damn. Otherwise, her tenure at the Times is unimpressive.

5/15/2007 8:18 PM  

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