George V. Lynett Jr. : Guest Column: Newspapers cutting distribution days
"The Daily Review Will Reduce Print Frequency to Three Days a Week."
If that were a headline, I hope that readers of this newspaper would greet it with shock, sadness and deep disappointment.
Sadly, readers of the Harrisburg Patriot-News awoke to that headline about three weeks ago. The Harrisburg daily is planning to cut from seven-day distribution to Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays only beginning Jan. 2, 2013. The Patriot-News is owned by Advance Publications Inc, and the announcement in Harrisburg followed similar announcements at other Advance newspapers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., New Orleans, and Syracuse, N.Y.
The announcements came like a punch in the gut to an industry in the midst of profound transition and still reeling from the Great Recession. Could these be the first in a long line of similar announcements from other newspaper companies? Is the long-predicted - but so far never correct - end of the daily print product finally upon us?
Reaction in our newsrooms and executive offices can be summed up with one word: disbelief. How can our state capitol, ripe with political corruption, corporate tax breaks and budget cuts to education and charities, go without a daily print newspaper? Who will be the government watchdog following staff reductions in the Harrisburg newsroom (to be announced next week according to an Advance press release)? How can a paper with the great reputation of the Patriot-News, and on the heels of winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting into the Penn State abuse scandal, be reduced to this?
Perhaps the owners believe that they are ahead of the game in refocusing the majority of their efforts online. Maybe they hope to be held up as the model for the future of local journalism and they imagine future historians lionizing them for transforming the media industry. Maybe they're saddled with massive debt and grasping for ways to reduce expenses. Advance is a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family, so the details of their decision-making process may never come to light.
I can't speak for the Newhouses, although I can say that The Daily Review and Times-Shamrock have no plans to follow Advance Publication's lead. I can also say that neither the current state of our industry nor economic factors dictated the drastic moves that Advance Publications chose to make.
They must have their reasons for toying with the daily model, but in the end, they are doing nothing less than putting their individual newspapers' century-plus old brands and franchises at risk, while forcing hundreds of thousands of dedicated readers to lose the "daily habit."
While it is true that print newspapers have suffered some erosion in advertising and print circulation (most newspapers actually have more readers now than they did 10 years ago thanks to their online editions), this is nothing new.
All along, newspapers have had to adjust to a changing marketplace and to new competitors, and we've always been able to adapt and prevail. My great-grandfather, E.J. Lynett, entered the radio business in 1922 because he thought, as many did at the time, that radio could usurp print in providing daily news. Network TV news was allegedly going to do the same, and Ted Turner famously predicted the death of print within 10 years of launching his 24-hour cable news channel, CNN. That was 32 years ago.
Afternoon newspapers moved to morning publication as reading habits changed. News stories became more analytical as broadcast competitors provided more on-the-spot coverage. Newspapers re-entered the breaking news business through their websites, which also allow newsrooms to constantly update top stories.
A big part of the revenue problem for newspapers is that the size of the overall advertising pie has not increased much, but there are many more slices these days as the internet creates new ways for advertisers to get their messages to customers, and for readers to get their news and information.
Newspapers are still a strong investment, and, when you remove the big city newspapers and over-leveraged public companies, are generally doing well. That's not just my opinion. Ask Warren Buffett, the so-called "Oracle of Omaha" known for his history of successful investments which have made him one of the world's richest people.
A long-time owner of The Buffalo News and major investor in The Washington Post, he recently bought his hometown newspaper, the Omaha World Herald, and followed that in May with the purchase of 65 more newspapers. The group is now called BH Media and is one of the largest newspaper companies in the US.
Buffett signaled that he's willing to buy more, saying that "In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper." Newspapers are strong investments so long as they are strongly connected to the local community and provide the kind of local news that the community wants and needs.
In other words, like The Daily Review.
Imagine what you would know about Bradford and Sullivan Counties' local news, if The Daily Review didn't exist or opted to significantly reduce coverage. Could TV or radio provide anything close to our comprehensive coverage? Would they send reporters to school board and municipal meetings? Provide breaking news on the web? Publish honor rolls, birth announcements, obituaries and wedding photos?
Thanks for readingâ¦ seven days a week.
George V. Lynett Jr., a CEO of Times Shamrock Communications and publisher of The Scranton Times-Tribune was a former publisher of The Daily Review.