The Line on the Survival of Local Newspapers

by ekramer on May 18, 2009

The financial crisis has pundits weighing in on the future of newspapers. Predictions have ranged from death to better prospects after the country climbs out of this recession. The clamor sent WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer to see how local newspapers are coping.

courier-journal-presses-006In the press room at The Courier-Journal, there’s the thick scent of ink as comics roll off the presses. Some pundits say the recession coupled with the rise of digital media could silence these machines — but not the paper’s president and publisher, Arnold Garson.

“It’s just become sort of the game of the moment to speculate whether newspapers will survive,” Garson says.

That game includes talk of making newspapers nonprofits and buzz about the Kindle. It’s a handheld device offered by Amazon for reading stored digital documents. Users can download newspapers to it. This month saw the the ballyhooed release of an improved version of the Kindle.

This comes with the recent silencing of presses at several newspapers and bankruptcies or threats of them at others. Industry analysts are saying that a nonprofit business model or that the Kindle and other e-readers will save newspapers from disappearing.

But Garson says digital media hasn’t been a large factor at bankrupt or troubled newspapers. Some, he says, were competing with others in city markets that can only support one daily paper. While newspapers have lost classified advertising to online sites, like Craig’s List , he says declining revenues at most newspapers is due to the economy.

“We newspapers derive our revenue from auto dealers and Realtors and businesses that are hiring and major national chain retailers,” Garson says. “All of those business segments are under pressure right now.”

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism recently reported advertising brought in nearly $50 billion for newspapers in 2006. In 2008, that fell 23 percent. Now, that revenue is in a freefall. It’s prompting even newspaper companies with traditionally healthy profit margins, like many in Gannett which owns The Courier-Journal, to reduce news space and send employees on furloughs.

And it’s happening outside metro areas. Shelbyville-based Landmark Community Newspapers owns more than 100 small town papers nationwide. In January, it announced furloughs at all of them. But this doesn’t mean newspapers will become irrelevant, says Landmark’s president, Mike Abernathy.

“Community newspapers reach more people far and away than any other medium,” Abernathy says. “In fact, there’s no close second. And from an advertising perspective, there is no better way to reach those communities than through our newspapers.”

Abernathy and Garson say a nonprofit business model would restrict the flow of resources and news coverage. But both say digital media will definitely be a stronger part of their future business model, but it won’t eliminate printed newspapers.

Some experts working to develop journalism on e-readers echo that. Roger Fidler is with University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, and he’s working with papers across the country to devise best practices for displaying news and ads on e-readers.

“The traditional business model of newspapers deriving revenue both from advertising and from circulation is not a dead model,” Fidler says. “It will continue to survive and evolve in the e-reader model.”

But it could take years before e-readers will be affordable for most people. Although most subscriptions to national papers cost about $10 on the Kindle, the new device costs nearly $500.

Still, newspapers are offering more digital products. Although The Courier-Journal isn’t available on the Kindle, it does offer subscribers an electronic edition.

Some tech savvy Louisvillians are reading newspapers on e-readers and in e-editions. Louisville lawyer Finis Price is at the dog run at “Tom” Sawyer State Park. While the dogs play, he reads.

“This is a Kindle,” Price says. “I use it to read all of my books. I also bought it because I’m an attorney.”

Price turns pages using a side button and, using a small keyboard, he can make notes. The device saves him the hassle of lugging around a lot of legal papers. He also downloads newspapers onto this eight-by-six inch device via a wireless connection. But he balks at the idea that the masses will flock to digital newspapers.

“People just are going to read newspapers always,” Price says. “But I think there’s also those types of people that want it in a different format.”

But critics say the main issue isn’t if journalism rolls off a printing press or a wireless connection. They worry that cutting news space and reporters to maintain profit margins will undermine quality journalism.

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