Local Newspapers Search for Silver Lining In Dire Paper Economy

april 30, 2009


BOSTON – There’s an old, and arguably overused, joke in the world of journalism that begs the question, “What’s black and white and re[a]d all over?”  

The obvious answer five years ago would have been the daily newspaper, but the all too familiar joke has lost its ultimate punch-line in recent years to the grips of the national economy and the presence of online media.  

And it’s no laughing matter.

In the past year alone, newspapers nationwide have seen plunging ad revenues – reported to fall as much as 30% in 2009 – and an overall decline in print readership leading to ever amounting debts, massive layoffs, buyout programs and above all, bankruptcy filings.  

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News, perhaps, was the first to find out this riddle’s cruel reality when the publication, just shy of its 150th anniversary, announced it would be closing its doors once and for all on February 27.  

“It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to you today,” a message read the day of their last issue, “our time chronicling the life of Denver and Colorado, the nation and the world, is over.”  

The decision, the paper said, came after owners E.W. Scripps Company reported multi-million dollar losses making Denver one of the first cities to undergo the transformation from a two to one paper town. The Denver Post is now the sole remaining outlet for news in the area.

“Not having the Rocky on my front lawn every morning is going to be painful,” Drew Hawk, 60, told the paper, “I’m really going to miss it…. It’s going to be sad to have [just] one out there now.”  

The truth is that many communities beyond Denver accustomed to two printed newspapers are beginning to see their coverage limited to one. Seattle is just one of the many regions to witness this first hand with the Seattle Post Intelligencer taking its operations exclusively online, leaving The Seattle Times as the sole printed media format.    

Other newspapers have followed suit including the Christian Science Monitor, which made the switch from print to pixels after 100 years this past March.  

“The lack of growth in print and the extreme growth we were experiencing online really meant we should move our resources [online],” John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, told Nation Public Radio (NPR) about the move.  

In fact, a Pew Research Center study found that more than 50 million Americans got their news online in 2005 – nearly a 50% increase from 2002 – opposed to traditional media outlets. And while the numbers have undoubtedly risen since then, newspaper organizations are not rejoicing quite yet.  

The Boston Globe reported a 15 percent increase in their online readership from February 2008 to February 2009. But the 5.7 million who visited were always one click away from free content wherever they turned, supported by online ads that provide little to no money for the struggling paper.  

“We’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on with the other,” Globe columnist Scot Lehigh wrote.

This is, by no means, good news for Boston’s most respected news provider.  

The Boston Globe is on track to lose $85 million in 2009 on top of the reported $50 million it lost in 2008. Although efforts in the past— including a layoff of 50 reporters at the start of the New Year – were meant to alleviate this projected loss, they did little to prepare the paper for what was to come.

On April 3, 2009 Globe owner The New York Times Co. threatened to close the Boston branch unless $20 million worth of union concessions were made through pay cuts, minimizing 401K plans and healthcare and eliminating lifetime job guarantees.

Many have criticized the decision suggesting The New York Times, also operated by The Times Co., take measures to cut costs after losing $57.8 million itself in 2008. Others have chosen to sympathize.

“It’s hard to imagine starting the day or doing this current job without The Globe,” Boston’s Gov. Deval Patrick (D) told reporters.  

Paul Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center added, “The thought of losing [The Boston Globe] is deeply disturbing. It is the major source for investigative journalism.”    

Some of its most notable investigative accolades date as far back as 1976 during the city bussing crisis to the more recent Pulitzer Prize winning work uncovering sexual abuse occurring within the Catholic Church.

“We simply cannot afford not to have it,” Levy added.  

Other publications on course to meet similar fates include The Sun Times Group’s Chicago Sun Times; The Tribune Company’s flagship papers The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times; and the Hearst owned San Francisco Chronicle.  

As these impending paper cuts swell into a figurative wound, it only digs itself deeper into the roots of not only metropolitan papers but now local communities. The Somerville Journal and sister paper, The Cambridge Chronicle, are just two of many reeling through the struggling industry.  

Both papers, owned by media conglomerate GateHouse Media, are weeklies that have seen their share of hits in the past with circulation falling since the 1950’s as printed media becomes a long forgotten commodity.    

“Last year was the worst year in the newspaper industry, and this year is going to be worse in terms of revenue,” Greg Reibman, Editor-in-Chief of Gatehouse Media New England Metros said. “The problem is a lot of newspapers wouldn’t be losing so much money if they didn’t owe so much debt.”  

“Everybody is about surviving now, flat is the new up. If we’re flat we’re really happy,” he later added. This optimism is easily evident within the staff of these two newspapers with Kathleen Powers, news editor of The Somerville Journal, as the pioneering poster girl leading the pack.  

She’s neither intimidating nor forceful in nature, but Powers is a profoundly powerful journalist who lives and breathes her community, its coverage, and the format it will appear in for years to come.  

“We have a city of roughly 2,000 here and they can’t wait to get their paper,” Powers said, “[and] while the newspaper, I believe, will always be here and covering the city… so many more people are flocking to the website to get their news.”  

This increase in online presence and readership is something The Journal and Chronicle have taken advantage of – their sites boast more content than ever before, features including a staff blog have taken shape and ad space is regularly sold out. The only problem, Reibman pointed out, is that revenue from online ads is still not enough to support the operation.

One alternative would be to make customers pay for the content, an idea that has been met with mixed reactions from consumers.  

“People expect to get their news online for free now so I don’t know if that can be changed easily. It’s hard to change people’s behavior,” Reibman said.  

Whatever the outcome, both papers are avidly working to provide quality journalism about Somerville and Cambridge to it’s readers, whether they reside down the street or as far away as Florida.    

“We’re proudly parochial, [and] relentlessly local,” Reibman stressed, “We try to make our site the portal of all things Somerville and all things Cambridge.”  

This could be seemingly hard when a powerhouse paper like The Boston Globe is only a few feet away from the action in both neighboring regions, but The Journal and The Chronicle don’t see it as such.  

“The Boston Globe is trying to cover all of New England, we’re only covering Somerville,” Powers said of the difference. “There’s also a sense in a lot of these communities that the big guys are going to come in and they’re going to say bad things about our community.”  

Powers says she sees this all too many times when crime reports, and nothing more, often litter the pages of regional newspapers.  

“The large media just kind of graze and sweep in,” Reibman added. “But at the end of the day they will do the story and go away but those stories always have a lot follow up and we’re going to be that follow up.”  

Their job, they said, is to fight this by covering not only the big crime stories but also celebrating the community and all it has to offer. Some of these include an artist population, second only to New York City, and a strong literary community.  

Patricia Wellenkamp, of Somerville, is one member of the expansive artist community who is not only regularly celebrated in The Journal, but often finds herself lending a helping hand in spreading the wealth of wonderfulness in which her community exhibits.  

Her store, Blue Cloud Gallery, is not only a shrine to primarily 90 Massachusetts artists but an art collector’s paradise full of one-of-kind ceramics, hand-blown glass, and various boutique finds. 

“It’s rare to have such a diverse community,” Wellenkamp said, “so what better way to showcase it than through collectible and affordable local art.”  

Many members seem to agree. Business attendance and sales are steady – remember, “Flat is the new up” – and Wellenkamp is thankful for her local following and the paper’s supportive helping hand.  

“People have responded so well and it has not required, on my part, too much advertising. There’s been plenty of times The [Somerville] Journal has surely helped boost my sales beyond foot traffic,” she said.  

If the paper were to close, however, Wellenkamp was not exactly sure what effects it would have on her business in the long run. Most advertising comes free of charge thanks to special features on holiday themed gift ideas, she said, and when she does advertise it’s on rare occasions.  

“The only thing I fear is not reaching potential customers in surrounding neighborhoods such as Cambridge or Boston,” she admitted, “Losing business to those local areas because they may not know of a sale or promotion is unsettling.”  

But she added, “The internet could change that.” And Reibman agrees.  

“The internet has changed the model, “Reibman said. “Before [the internet] if you were Filenes [now owned and operated by Macy’s Inc.] or the grocery store and you wanted to reach people you had to go to the printing press, now there’s lots of ways business can reach people.”  

The Somerville Public Library is hoping to take this direction in the future by using not only their website for advertising upcoming events, but also using The Somerville Journal and its online calendar of events as a hub for all things library related.  

“Whether it’s in print or online or both we will always have a connection with the paper and in doing so will help both our business,” Somerville Public Library Director Nancy Milnor said.  

Whatever the shape the paper may take, one thing Reibman and his colleagues are sure about is that their future looks far more hopeful than their mainstream competitors.   

“At the end of the day our model works better, Reibman stressed. “There’s still people who want to know about the traffic light or what happened at the school committee or that loud noise you heard last night. Where are you going to go but your local paper [for that].“ 

Auditi Guha, a Somerville Journal reporter, concurred, “The Globe or The Boston Herald are not going to come in and cover how the community corporations are doing. The people from Somerville care and what other way will they have of spreading that information in a community other than our website or community paper.”  

Whether that community paper of the future is in a printable format, digital, paid or free doesn’t seem to bother either staff.

“Everybody is losing so everything is going to get tried, absolutely anything. Any idea is going to work on some level,” opined Powers. 

So Reibman, Powers and their small staff of “community leaders,” as she calls her reporters, will continue providing their readers with all the local news worth knowing. And that’s an idea almost every media outlet should follow in order to keep the paper industry’s oldest living joke, and themselves, from ending up in a graveyard of things long remembered.