Albion Monitor /Commentary

It's the Content, Stupid

by Mark Lowenthal

The slow, sad and steady decline of the daily newspaper

Pop quiz: What do the following three items have in common?

  • According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, ten of the fifteen largest daily newspapers in the U.S. experienced drops in circulation for the six-month period ending March 31.

  • Times Community Newspapers (TCN), the largest newspaper group in Washington, D.C., has decided to convert its 16 newspapers from the standard 27-inch-wide format to a more svelte 25 inches later this year. According to TCN's publisher, "Studies clearly found dramatically improved readership in the new format."

  • In just the past six years, an astounding 52 daily newspapers have been closed down or merged with a competitor -- including such large-market luminaries as the Dallas Times Herald, New York Newsday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Houston Post and the San Diego Tribune.

    The obvious answer is that all three of these exemplify the slow, sad and steady decline of the daily newspaper business. The more nuanced answer is that these items represent a figurative chronology to this continuum.

  • The goofiness factor inherent in these types of "remedies"

    To be sure, this first item is indisputable -- by all standards of measurement, newspaper readership has been dropping for some time now.

    The analysis concerning what should be done about this, however, is where "conventional wisdom" seems to stray into the realm of the... well... stupid.

    Indeed, the multitude of misguided ideas about "what to do," continue to center around such masterstrokes as the introduction of color photos, USA Today-style graphs, graphics and pie-charts, shorter story-lengths (i.e., no jumps to a second page) and the increased use of focus groups and market research which inevitably lead to such innovations as narrowing the width of the newspaper by two inches.

    As a simple matter of logic, the goofiness factor inherent in these types of "remedies" shouldn't surprise anyone. What else can be expected when important decisions about the art and craft of producing a newspaper are predominantly made by business executives who know a great deal about balance sheets -- and next to nothing about journalism.

    While this might strike some as a tad reductionist, I ask you -- would you place an accountant in charge of your triple-bypass surgery? (For those who answered yes, there seems to be a future for you in newspaper management).

    If consumers are looking to be entertained, they're going to flip on the TV

    The conventional thinking behind these kinds of "remedies" is that they make newspapers more "reader-friendly" and "inviting" -- in short, less imposing and more entertaining. The ultimate irony of this, however, is that these brilliant new gimmicks only serve to drive readers further and further away from daily newspapers. Indeed, readers have never picked up newspapers for the purpose of being entertained -- but rather to become informed. And you can be damn sure that if consumers are looking to be entertained, they're going to flip on the TV long before they're going to purchase a newspaper. With "innovative" thinking about journalism apparently limited to the "public journalism" movement in the U.S., I propose that we look to Denmark -- where the results of a truly fresh idea are currently turning heads -- and fattening one paper's profit-margin.

    According to the May edition of American Journalism Review (AJR), "Three years ago, the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten was struggling to keep its place as the fifth-largest newspaper in Denmark...and facing a crisis resembling those at many American newspapers" (declining readership, readers defecting to television, etc.).

    Like their American counterparts, "Newspaper executives throughout the country pared editorial staffs and cut newsholes to save money."

    "The money they did spend," the AJR piece continues, "bought readership surveys, redesigns and updated computer systems."

    Daring to invest in journalism

    But the Jyllands-Posten did something different.

    First, the paper hired a new, 29-year-old editor-in-chief, Ulrik Haagerup, who "had just earned the Danish equivalent of the Pulitzer."

    Next, Haagerup convinced the paper's president to invest all of the publication's resources in "old-fashioned journalism."

    Now some four years later, according to AJR, "Haagerup has added 60 news reporters to the Jyllands-Posten staff,...the newshole has increased by 20 percent,....advertising revenues have increased by 43 percent...and the Jyllands-Posten is now the largest paper in Denmark."

    Daily circulation has increased from 125,000 to 178,000 and the paper's special Sunday edition (which focuses heavily on investigative journalism) has increased from 225,000 to 265,000.

    "If you dare to invest in journalism," says Haagerup, "then you can live."

    It is in his condemnation of the conventional corporate approach to declining readership, however, that Haagerup is at his most insightful.

    "First they hire a design guru...for $1,000 an hour...then the computer guru...then the management people in Armani suits from the business schools come in..."

    "But in doing so," Haagerup concludes, "(they) forget what the paper is all about -- the most important tool in a democratic society."

    Profound words from the now-33-year-old Dane -- who seems to have a greater respect for "our" system of government than the C.E.O.'s of U.S. media companies who are quick to embrace these same values -- while undermining them with market, rather than journalism-oriented quick fixes.

    Mark Lowenthal is associate director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

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    Albion Monitor July 20, 1996 (

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