From AJR,   April/May 2007

Facing the Future   

Newspapers are making necessary changes to endure in the Internet era.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

The Internet has jolted the newspaper industry, forcing a rethinking of how to practice journalism and do business.

As an ink-strained wretch from an earlier, less complicated newspaper era, I am uncomfortable with some of the looming changes. But I recognize the new approach is inevitable, given competition from the Internet, and probably desirable if it enables newspapers to continue funding the only comprehensive newsgathering operations in the land.

What brought these thoughts to mind are announcements of sweeping changes at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and at newspapers owned by Gannett. (Disclosure: I have been a consultant for the Journal-Constitution's parent, Cox Enterprises, for more than 30 years, and on a few occasions for Gannett.)

The changes at these two companies share some characteristics and differ in some ways. Some key elements:

An emphasis on hyperlocal news coverage, an increased focus on covering local news in print and online--some of it very, very local (see "Really Local")--or, as Journal-Constitution Publisher John Mellott puts it, "providing stories that can be found nowhere else." At the Gannett papers this effort will include mobile journalists ("mojos") who work out of their cars with laptops and audio and video equipment, feeding stories and video continuously to Web sites and the newspaper.

Reduced print circulation, by eliminating distribution to distant areas and concentrating on close-in parts of the market of greatest interest to local advertisers. Most Gannett papers moved in this direction long ago. At the Journal-Constitution, Publisher Mellott says, "the $5 it costs to deliver a 50-cent newspaper to those [distant] areas makes little business sense." The paper is eliminating daily delivery to adjoining states except for Chattanooga, Tennessee, and western North Carolina, and to all but 75 counties closest to Atlanta (previously the paper was delivered to 145 of Georgia's 159 counties).

Reduced news staffs as print circulation continues to decline, since generally staff size is pegged to circulation. The Journal-Constitution's average weekday circulation, for example, has dropped more than 8 percent in five years, to 350,157; Sunday has dropped more than 15 percent, to 523,968. The paper has offered buyouts, the first in its history, to 80 of its 475 newsroom employees. There will be no involuntary layoffs. (I'll point out that the Journal-Constitution's news staff is large for its circulation size and will remain so even if all 80 buyouts are accepted.)

Gannett's newspapers are already tightly run.

Increased dialogue with readers through blogs, message boards, reader polls and other devices, to the point of having readers participate in newsgathering. In response to complaints from readers, Gannett's daily in Fort Myers, Florida, the News-Press, solicited help from engineers, accountants and others to examine documents pertaining to the high cost of connecting water and sewer lines. A resulting investigative series revealed bid-rigging, triggering an official's resignation and reduced costs.

Behind these changes are realignments in the way news and other information is gathered, processed and distributed. Gannett Chairman Craig Dubow says the company's newsrooms will now be known as "information centers" to emphasize that the newspapers offer not just news, although "news remains our pre-eminent mission." He says other information is demanded by readers: "Calendars, recommendations, lifestyle topics as well as neighborhood-level stories."

At the Journal-Constitution, more than a dozen newsroom departments will be merged into four: news and information, enterprise ("for distinctive local content"), digital and print. The goal, says Editor Julia Wallace, is to separate content from production.

How will all this work out? It is, of course, too soon to tell, but it is encouraging that newspapers are acknowledging that the old ways of serving readers need to change to meet Internet challenges.

One concern is that "hyperlocal" means short shrift for national and international news in an era of globalization that makes understanding foreign cultures and developments more important than ever. Mellott, the Journal-Constitution's publisher, says his paper "will continue to provide news of the region, the nation and the world." Given his paper's size and influence, that no doubt will be true.

But in my travels around the country, I have often been appalled while perusing smaller papers--longtime bastions of hyperlocal--at how little they tell their readers about the rest of the world. Sometimes local news is pretty lightweight, too.

And the idea of reporters filing stories from their cars directly to Web sites without an editor's overview is scary to me, and I would think to a newspaper's lawyers.

Still, the Web likely will rule the future. The Journal-Constitution, the Gannett papers and many other papers around the country are focusing on the only part of their businesses that is showing growth in readers and advertising. Succeeding at this is crucial to the future of newspapers.