Newspaper’s decline

The Paul Finebaum Radio show Wednesday was fascinating as it addressed the decline of the newspaper.

On Tuesday, I had lunch with an old friend who recently left the newspaper business. He has predicted the death of newspapers to the Internet for at least the last five or six years. As we ate at Jim & Nick’s, I admitted to him that I thought newspapers were killing themselves.

We talked about who could survive in the new marketplace. He ran through the mega papers like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. I added rural and suburban weeklies along with small dailies. The verdict was split on mid-size dailies and large dailies. It probably depends on markets, reading habits, and marketing.

Advertisement: Story continues below



While the tone is bad for newspapers, it isn’t all bad news. The Birmingham News has trumpeted its circulation increase. It claims a readership surge of 17-percent against last year. According to the News, over 330,000 adults read the News on weekdays.

That isn’t a bad audience. I’d say that type of reach still dominates the media landscape. Unlike television, these aren’t just the unwashed miscreants—these people are educated and have disposable income.

And al.com is the largest website in the state of Alabama. According to some sources, al.com boasts over 500,000 monthly unique users. Nationally, newspaper webpages saw 66.4 million unique visitors per month. That is roughly 40.7-percent of all Internet traffic, according to the NAA.

So, newspapers aren’t dead yet—provided they know how to harness the Internet. Without a doubt, al.com knows what it is doing. While the site could be better (the web design is ugly compared to the print editions), the website has a dominant standing in this state.

But there can be little doubt that newspapers have declined since the 1970’s. Gone are the days of multiple newspapers serving the same towns. And in a sense that is exactly what is wrong with newsapapers. There isn’t real print competition anymore.

Newspapers compete against television, radio and the Internet. But not really.

A newspaper isn’t going to break the story of a fire or building collapse. That is the realm of broadcast. However, the how and why of the story‚ the reasons, are what the newspaper can deliver.

But you need a print competitor to drive that home. Management and writers need to worry they’ll get scooped—the media’s version of watching a competitor’s unsportsmanlike touchdown dance. It is humiliating.

But does the Birmingham News really worry about any of the print competitors in this market scooping it? In most cases, it doesn’t have to worry. Who reads the Birmingham Business Journal or Black & White? Those publications are such niche markets, a story in those publications really doesn’t scoop the News.

Competition is what makes any business good. If you don’t have to deliver a good product then you get complacent. (And what is a good product? That means something along what Henry Ford would mean—deliver the best product possible at the lowest price possible.)

Without competition newspapers are caught in the doldrums.

Finebaum said something interesting regarding his concerns about the decline of newspapers. He wondered if Internet sites are objective and capable of providing the balance for which newspapers are famous.

I’d remind him that newspapers were never objective. As a student of newspapers, I’m sure he remembers the great days of American newspapers when the papers were called names like the Blount County Democrat or the Springfield Republican.

In the big cities, it was common for the rival political parties to use newspapers to push partisan agendas. The great thing was the competition was not only between partisan ideas, but also who could deliver the most interesting, powerful stories first.

Objectivity is a fallacy. In fact, the intense partisan bias created a scrutiny from opposition newspapers which held politicians accountable.

The Internet may do an even better job holding writers accountable.

Whether it is a Louisiana sports columnist using a joke as the basis of a newspaper column, or intelligent readers who point out inaccuracies, the Internet is a great mechanism for mass accountability. Screw up on the Internet, and your opposition and even your friends won’t let you forget anytime soon.

It is a brutal new world.

Will Heath, a blogger and sports editor at a small Alabama daily, has said one of the big drawbacks to blogs is the lack of personal accountability.

He’s right about many blogs. Where you can call your local sports editor at 3 a.m. to threaten them, it is much harder to call “some guy on the Internet”. (Though I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard for someone who wanted to.)

While personal accountability may lack in some venues, the larger venues like Rivals and Scout, are held accountable by the marketplace. Mess up, and lose subscribers to your competitors.

Finebaum asked another profound question on his Wednesday show: Do fans want objective coverage of their teams?

The answer is yes and no.

Fans don’t want to hear when disaster is about to strike, but if you are in the wilderness shouting the truth, then they will respect you when the disaster arrives.

When I was blogging about Mike Shula, the consensus among most Alabama fans was that I was an outside agitator bent on destroying the Alabama program. I was accused of being a Tennessee fan, or worse.

When Shula lost to Mississippi State, that changed. Fans recognized my arguments were valid. They appreciated I was brave enough to say Shula’s days should end at the Capstone.

Fans want the truth. They just often can’t recognize it until much later.