There’s been some interesting media news in the past few days.
The New York Times reports the Federal Communications Commission is taking another look at sharing agreements that have combined broadcast news resources from formerly competing stations, similar to Hawaii News Now, the merger of KGMB, KHNL, and KFVE.
The Federal Communications Commission does not know how many agreements exist between stations, making it impossible to judge their effects. But Julius Genachowski, the F.C.C. chairman, indicated last week that the commission was beginning to study the issue. “It’s something we’re taking a close look at the F.C.C.” he said. He sounded especially curious about what he called behind-the-scenes cooperation between stations that collaboratively sell ads and negotiate contracts with distributors.
Even as Internet use rises, local television remains the No. 1 source of news for most Americans. There’s an honored history — parodied in the film “Anchorman” — of competition between stations, just as there used to be between newspapers in some major cities.
But the owners of stations have gradually reduced costs and, arguably, competition. Building on the longtime sharing of cameras and helicopters by stations, the first “shared services agreements,” for newsrooms, and “local marketing agreements,” for ad sales, were put in place more than a decade ago.
Critics quoted in the story hit on the elimination of competition in covering the news, and its effects on the public interest.
“The same cookie-cutter content above a different graphic doesn’t cut it,” said Craig Aaron, the head of Free Press, a nonprofit media reform group that has gathered case studies of sharing by stations.
“Worst of all, maybe, is that we’ll never know what’s missing — what dirt isn’t being dug up, what questions aren’t asked, what stories are going uncovered,” Mr. Aaron said, calling the sharing “covert consolidation.”
Then there was the announcement that the New Orleans Times-Picayune will fire at least a third of its reporters and cut its print newspaper back to three days a week, with newspapers delivered only on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The newspaper will instead shift its attention to the online delivery of news.
“Staff will immediately be whacked by at least a third (from 150 to 100 or fewer reporters). Top brass will be fired and reporters who remain aboard will take sharp salary cuts and be expected to start blogging through the day [for affiliated website NOLA.com],” according to The Gambit, a local weekly. (Brackets in original.)
According to the Washington Post: “The Times-Picayune is part of Advance Publications, a Newhouse family company that announced a similar change for its three dailies in Alabama: in Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville.”
When the changes come to pass, the Crescent City will become America’s largest city without daily print news coverage, and the Times-Pic will be the biggest paper to downgrade to less-than-daily publication.
Beaumont, Lufkin, Tyler, Galveston and Huntsville will soon have papers that publish more frequently than New Orleans, formerly the queen city of the Gulf Coast.
Supporters of the move claim that the diminished schedule will result in more “robust” editions on the three days they do print. The thrice-weekly Times-Pic will “contain a richer and deeper news, sports and entertainment report, as well as a full week’s worth of features such as society coverage, puzzles and comics.”
Others are not so sure. One such is New Orleans native and former Houstonian Greg Ellis, who grew up scooping up the Times-Pic off his doorstep.
“It’s really a drag. It makes New Orleans seem like it’s going away instead of coming back,” he says over the phone from Austin. “This spits in the face of a city that’s trying to make a comeback. Management is effectively saying, ‘We’ve given y’all seven years [after Katrina], and now y’all are on your own.”
And, from Newpaper Death Watch:
Ricky Mathews, who will become president of the newly created NOLA Media Group, confirmed the news in a statement this morning that contained the usual sugar-coating. “NOLA Media Group will significantly increase its online news-gathering efforts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while offering enhanced printed newspapers on a schedule of three days a week,” he said. The only enhancements specified were to food and dining coverage.
All the spin-doctoring in the world doesn’t change the fact that New Orleans will soon become the second major U.S. city without a daily newspaper.
Similar cutbacks were announced by Postmedia, a Canadian newspaper chain, according to the website, Gigaom.com.
Canada’s Postmedia chain announced on Monday that it is cutting production at several of its largest urban newspapers. The company, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2010 under new management, is looking to lay off dozens of staff and is also erecting paywalls at several of its papers. But the question for Postmedia and its fellow newspaper operators is: Will these cuts stem the bleeding or simply cause the decline of print to accelerate?
The announcement included an interesting twist:
But the company also blamed some of the decline in advertising revenue on what it called “foreign-owned and controlled digital companies who, without any regulation, are accessing Canadian audiences and eroding Canadian media revenues.” In an interview with the Globe and Mail, CEO Paul Godfrey named Google and AOL as two companies that have are to blame for the decline, and said they should be regulated by the government.
Meanwhile, paywalls are predicted to proliferate this year:
And there is growing evidence that people will pay for their local news, says Paul Gillin, social media consultant and founder of the Newspaper Death Watch blog.
“Regional papers are finding that [readers will] pay a low amount if the information is highly specialized to that region, which the Boston Globe is having some success with,” he says.
The Globe announced last week that circulation has grown for the first time since September 2004 and that since the fourth quarter of 2011, its paid digital subscribership has grown 13 percent. It’s a sign of hope for a paper that just a few years ago closed all of its foreign bureaus to cut costs. And as the Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed out in its 2012 State of the News Media report, Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have both also seen signs of success with paywalls.
Politico is also trying the niche approach with its subscriber-only Politico Pro products. Instead of aiming at a specific geography, like a metro paper might do, these aim at specific communities like those immersed in health or technology policy.
Though no single model will work for everyone, the trend of paying for news content, says Rosenstiel, is likely here to stay.
“When 2012 began, there were probably 150 daily newspapers in the U.S. that had online subscriptions. That number is going to more than double this year and even triple,” he says.