Saturday, January 12, 2008

Many Small Papers Are Tanking As Year Begins

The way things are going in the newspaper business, it may not be too long before the big papers will be just about the only ones left. Two longtime newspapers have closed since the end of 2007, and many others have undertaken layoffs and other cost-saving measures. In recent years, hundreds of afternoon dailies have vanished, or become morning papers.

Here in Southern California, the papers owned by Dean Singleton have virtually all laid off numerous employees. At the Orange County Register, the story has been told about the unfortunate newsman summoned in on his day off to a meeting, only to be told when he got there he was fired.

Singleton is trying to follow in the footsteps of the Tribune Co.'s inept former CEO Dennis FitzSimons, who was laid off himself when Sam Zell became the Tribune owner. But unlike FitzSimons, it is doubtful that Singleton could leave with a multi-million severance. His papers probably do not have that kind of nest egg. The Singleton story is one of a squalid little man buying a bunch of squalid little newspapers, and then running them further into the ground. He may end up like the squirrel, living off nuts in the park.

The Cincinnati Post, its circulation having dropped by 75%, went out of business after 127 years of publication Dec. 31, and the Kent County Journal of Kent, Washington, a Seattle suburb, will close down Jan. 21. It has been Washington state's 8th largest paper.

In California, the story is almost as bad. The San Jose Mercury News is a shadow of its former self. Two big layoffs in recent months have pared the staff by 17%. One wonders whether a Silicon Valley edition of the Los Angeles Times wouldn't be more of a success.

The San Francisco Chronicle has laid off many, too, and recent word there was that the newspaper is losing $50,000 a month.

Here in Los Angeles, the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Long Beach Press-Telegram have all retreated from respectable journalism, laying off workers, cutting features and amalgamating many of their busness functions. These are all Singleton-owned newspapers.

What are the causes? Ads are way down, and certain categories of ads, like classified, are approaching the vanishing point. Owners are unwilling to invest, fearing further reverses. There is a general ecnomic downturn, the whole housing industry has tanked. And more people are getting their news from the Internet rather than the daily press.

I'm certainly aware of the tendency toward more use of the Internet. Even with the papers I subscribe to, the L.A. Times and the New York Times, I increasingly read many stories late the night before online. It's not as pleasurable as reading the print edition, but it helps me do this blog early many mornings.

There certainly is a call for serious journalism, but that is being provided by the big newspapers, struggling too, but usually not to the same extent.

In many cases, the content of the L.A. Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, is as good as it's ever been. All of these papers also have increasingly successful Web sites, where readership is constantly growing, and ads are being sold in ever larger numbers.

There is, I believe, hope for these papers. But for the Daily News, the Register, even the San Diego Tribune, where there have been recent serious layoffs, I wonder.

We can't disdain our suffering colleagues, and tell them to eat cake. It's certainly no laughing matter, and all we can hope is that many of those laid off can find lucrative careers in other fields.

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