Media Romp

5 May

This morning, let’s take a drive through the sticky business of The Newspaper, shall we?

Our tour today takes us to my hometown StarTribune newspaper, one with a fine jouranlistic tradition, one of late put in the service of an advertising strategy and debt payoff — never a great combination.

Today, the StarTribune’s investor-owners are in their own media hotseat , fending off a New York Post story that claimed the paper wasn’t paying its debts, and claiming that the paper on the brink of bankruptcy.  Their response:  No, but we’ve hired the Blackstone Group to look at our options.

The problem for the StarTribune is simple:  Advertising is going elsewhere. In a media environment rapidly moving online and to search, newspapers are stuck with a business model that is just not working.

The recent State of the News Media 2008 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism is telling.  On advertising, the report quotes a major media buyer:

“We used to be in the trucking business. We used to take ads and commercials and deliver them,” says Charlie Rutman, CEO of North American Operations at MPG, which controls over $3 billion in U.S. ad spending annually.

While ad executives know that trucking analogy is no longer accurate, they aren’t really sure what is replacing it.

Craig’s List, online ad sales and employment websites have decimated the the classified market.  And according to the report, newspapers’ print versus online ad ratio still lingers at around 90 percvent versus 10 percent.

The StarTribune is in the same trouble — according to today’s article, as of March 31, circulation dropped 6.7 percent from the previous six months, annual revenue dropped $75 million between early 2005 and early 2007, and classified ads were half the level they were at in 2000.

The question to me isn’t so much one of how their ads are going to make up for the loss, but how their going to continue supporting continuation of a tradition of good journalism in this community — and every other community that has enjoyed the benefits of having good a good paper in town.

The StarTribune’s most recent change in strategy was to create localized sections for various suburban regions.  That strategy seems to be sagging.  While there seems to be strong coverage lately of Edina parents complaining about families wanting to transfer into their great schools, my Twin Cities West section today has these front page stories:

> Someone in Rice County won the lottery.

> Committees talking about tackling Downtown Minneapolis crime.

> A Hopkins school teacher winning teacher of the year (nice, but should have been on page 1 — maybe in place of the ‘what kids are reading’ list from the Washington Post).

> A story on teens in Hudson, Wisc. putting photos of themselves unclothed online, based on no discernable news hook.

I’d be shocked if these are the kinds of must-read, hyper-local stories that will hook readers and draw ad dollars (and I promise to read this section the rest of the week and eat my words if I must).

The StarTribune has continued to try addition by subtraction — the number of excellent journalists no longer working at our local papers could make for a great news operation.  As we’ve seen across multiple industries, you thrive and grow not just by cutting back, but in doing so, concentrating on your core — doing what you do best and doing it better than anyone else.  It may require the painful process of starting over — recasting the organization not around generating double-digit profit margins but on how, if you were starting today, would you create a sustainable organization to support excellent locally based journalistm.

And this is a time when the values of professional journalism — of professional news gathering organizations — have never been more needed.  We need folks who can ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ Who can question authority and call out those in power when their abusing them.  And, frankly, we need journalists who are professionals — who can cover local news with more commitment and perspective than your typical citizen journalist.  Whatever their many faults, professional news organizations are structured to cover news, get answers, check facts and most always get their stories right.

Call me old fashioned, but there’s a need for this.  There may not be a need for trees to fall, factories to belch smoke and waste and trucks to roll hither and yon just so a folded sheaf of smelly ink and newsprint can land in my mailbox every morning, but there’s more need than ever for the content and commitment it represents.

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