It rarely fails that when I meet someone new and tell them what my occupation was for many years – an editor at The Macon Telegraph – their response is something like, “Oh, I quit taking it years ago. There wasn’t anything in it anymore.”
THEY ASK what should be done about it – as if there’s a secret solution that hasn’t been tried. I could have made a lot of money with a good answer to that one.
MAKING MONEY was what newspapers used to be very good at. Newspaper owners once got very rich running newspapers. The profit margins were high, and those owners got even richer when they sold out. The Telegraph was a locally owned newspaper, and Peyton Anderson became a multi-millionaire when he sold it to the Knight brothers.
MUCH OF Anderson’s fortune was bequeathed to a foundation that continues to fund community initiatives in Macon; the Knight Foundation, created with wealth from the Knight family brothers, funds projects in cities where the brothers originally owned newspapers, including Macon, Milledgeville and Columbus. Beverly Knight Olson, a Macon resident and daughter of one of the Knight brothers, has been generous with her inheritance by also funding projects in Macon, including the children’s hospital that bears her name.
BUT SINCE the 1990s, big city newspapers have been slipping away. The Internet arrived and newspapers could not easily convert advertising dollars generated from the large printed page to a much smaller visual presentation on a computer screen. At the time, editors believed the solution was to put the newspaper’s news stories on their website, which would drive readers to that website so more people would see the small ads. More eyeballs meant the newspaper could charge higher prices to advertisers.
IT DIDN’T work. It was a mistake for newspapers to give away their news stories for free. Advertising revenue declined and profits declined so employees were shown the door. Fewer reporters meant fewer stories, so the content suffered and subscriptions declined. This downward spiral has been occurring for 25 years. At the height of its prominence in the 1980s, The Telegraph had a paid circulation of about 75,000 daily newspapers. As of this past September, that number had fallen to 12,700 – down 2,000 from the previous year – and I know of only one person who still subscribes (and it isn’t me).
MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS, the current owner of The Telegraph, is struggling mightily. The issue isn’t just declining ad dollars, but debt payments. Years ago, thinking newspapers and TV stations were good things to buy, the company bought many, and they borrowed money to do it. Today, with revenues falling, making the payments on that debt has become a struggle, and the company also is having a tough time finding the cash to make payments to all of its retirees.
CUTTING BACK on employee salaries isn’t all the cutting that’s been done. Newsprint is the next biggest expense, and The Telegraph has been cutting that as well. Not only are there fewer pages and those pages are more narrow, but The Telegraph recently eliminated the Saturday print edition. Monday could be next, as there’s rarely much advertising in that edition either.
AND NOW comes the news that the newspaper’s civic involvement is being reduced as well. The general manager wrote last weekend that the Golden Eagle Awards, for more than 40 years one of the region’s most prestigious scholastic recognition programs for high school students, is being farmed out. The Telegraph wants to hand it off to a new organization to get out from under those $1,000 and $300 awards to students in 13 academic categories.
WILL DAVIS doesn’t share with me how The Reporter is doing, but by all accounts smaller newspapers are doing OK. Content is king -- local advertisers want local content, and The Reporter has plenty of it. But these are troubling times for big media outlets. Not only are big newspapers hurting, so is TV. While it may be wonderful that we have so many cable or satellite TV channels to watch, it fragments the TV audience -- too many channels, too many programs. That hurts local TV stations, which in turn hurts their newsrooms.
WHAT ARE the solutions to this revenue dilemma? Perhaps it involves private funding, with money from foundations and wealthy individuals. Perhaps it involves subscription bundling, like cable/satellite TV -- pay one price, get access to lots of publications.
I REALLY DON’T know, but watching media outlets struggle financially isn’t the worst of it. Who reports the news if these operations go away? Who tells us what governments are doing for us -- and to us? Who tells us what the president is doing, what state government is doing, what sports teams are doing, what Russia is really up to? How can we differentiate between online liars, public relations spin doctors and the truth tellers?
MY OLD DAYS at The Telegraph were fun. There were characters, big stories, investigations, laughing, and not many shortages. But technology has changed everything. Some new version of “journalism” will emerge, but it’s unclear what that will be. What is clear is that due to all of the current revenue challenges, the business of news gathering is going to get worse before it gets better.
A former newspaper editor, Bill Weaver lives in northern Monroe County. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.