I went to graduate school in journalism for three reasons.
The first was out of a need to get more polished in terms of my feature writing. The second was to get sharper at radio production. The final reason was in a journalism job market that, even back in 2004, had effectively tanked, I felt one more piece of training, one more personal and financial sacrifice, and there would be that elusive credential to my name that said “You Are A Journalist” (TM).
I remember a lot of my friends and colleagues from that program were there for a wide variety of reasons (although, funny enough, some of my colleagues spent time reading this blog and even commenting anonymously with mean-spirited troll-like venom, which I just found out about) too. Some were pretty desperate to get into the newspaper business and write for a living. Some have even succeeded.
Even back in those days, it was pretty easy to see the writing, so to speak, was on the proverbial wall when it came to newspapers’ futures: it was written in blood and was being washed by the digital tidal waves.
Now, almost four years later, the newspaper market is effectively collapsing faster than ever before. The treeware business is circling the drain.
There’s a lot of reasons why this is happening, of course. The usual reasons, like Craigslist killing the classified ad market or a complete lack of time-sensitivity in a 24/7 news cycle have been repeated so many times now it must be True (or not).
I think the biggest reason has to be the easiest one – publishers and editors in charge simply don’t know how to change and adapt to the digital realities. And if they did change, it was too little, too late.
The people who read newspapers in their print form nowadays are almost entirely older folks – Baby Boomers and up. It’s a given that the vast, vast, vast majority of young people don’t read newspapers in treeware format, if at all. No matter how hard the average sales rep tries to sell a Toronto Sun subscription to those fickle youth, you’re falling on deaf ears more and more. Advertisers know this, media conglomerates know this, even wire services have to be aware of this (hell, wire copy is booming in a market so hungry to cost cut it will take recycled, truncated news bits over real journalism any day of the week now).
The big signal that 2008 is shaping up to be the Big Slide for newspapers has to be the U.S. newspaper market. The L.A. Times is cutting jobs like drunken clear-cutters in B.C., the N.Y. Times has been cutting and is rumoured to be cutting even more jobs, and even the Wall Street Journal may be under the knife for job cuts.
Canadian newspapers aren’t exactly doing well either. The Star pulled a knife-in-the-back move with cutting a huge number of journalists – even Canada’s finest book critic, Philip Marchand – last month while pay raises were given to management types and the paper’s stock price continued to fall. I don’t know anyone who reads the National Post anymore, and the Globe’s saving grace has to be the paper’s web site, which is pretty good. It’s just too bad the treeware edition is getting so expensive in the process too.
The irony of all this is the more you cut, the worse the product becomes. And the worse the product becomes, the more your market hemorrhages. Even if Boomers and seniors are locked into buying habits enshrined when they were young, that doesn’t mean Canadian youth are. Not by a long shot.
It’s vicious cycle squared, a business run on borrowed time. By cutting jobs and opportunities for journalists, you’re effectively killing your market slower than by simply shutting down the paper wholesale. It’s like death by months of trace arsenic poisoning – you might not notice the effects at first, but the more you administer that shit, the worse it will get. You just won’t notice until it’s too late.
Fact is, young people are far more fickle about their market choices than Boomers will ever be. We have good reason to be: we’re a generation raised on digital and the infinite choice that offers. We’re also far, far less trusting of institutions, politics and media as a whole than any generation in history. So you may want to excuse a generation’s buying habits when you consider, on any given day, how the news is being digested by youth nowadays. The old days of newspapers being licenses to print money are dead.
And unless someone, somewhere, figures out a revolutionary strategy to meet young consumers head-on, newspapers are going to die soon.
It’s only a question of when.