No end in sight for newspaper layoffs

By John McManus
Posted July 28, 2007

As the Chronicle, the Mercury News and other MediaNews papers amputate staff, you may have noticed that the paper doesn't land on the porch with much authority anymore.

If not. You will.

Does anyone seriously think we've seen the last of the newspaper layoffs?

John McManus

Layoffs are driven by a loss of readers and advertisers to the Web and, for some owners, the desire to wring extra dollars out of a declining business. Even though Bay Area newsrooms have already lost a third to half the staff they employed as little as seven years ago, I fear we're nowhere near the bottom.

Just this week, MediaNews announced a consolidation of its East Bay newspapers. As a result vacant positions will go unfilled and more layoffs are expected.

Goldman Sachs recently reported that given an expanding national economy, the recent declines in newspaper ad revenues are "extraordinary." May was "the worst month we've ever seen in a non-recession period," the investment analysts warned.

Think the Web will bring salvation?

The Newspaper Association of America reports that newspapers earned only 5.4% of their total revenues from Web ads in 2006. That's enough to support a 10-20 person newsroom. But not two or three hundred -- the current complements of the Mercury News and Chronicle, respectively.

Currently subscribers and retailers who buy ads in print are subsidizing the news on newspaper Web sites.

That's not likely to change soon. The supply of virtual space for online ads is almost unlimited while the demand is finite. That keeps rates low. Not all Web sites have large numbers of eyeballs to sell to advertisers, but there are more popular sites than print outlets. So it's a buyers' market for advertising on the Web.

As newsrooms empty, there will be less and less reason to buy a paper. Even die-hard subscribers will cancel. Advertisers will follow them out the door.

Newspapers simply cannot afford to continue this madness of competing with themselves for free on the Internet.

More importantly, neither can society.

Most government officials are honest. But what's to keep those who are not so disposed from cheating the public when there's no longer a reporter there to expose it? And even honest officials perform better when they know the public can see over their shoulders.

Aren't you a little more careful when you're being observed?

As newspapers shrink, we're losing one of the most important benefits of an active press -- the deterrence of corruption.

Some claim radio and TV journalists or bloggers, will fill this gap. But broadcast journalism pretty much depends on newspapers to dig up the news and to cover government. The same is true for bloggers.

Others say what you don't know can't hurt you. But what you don't know often hurts the most. It has led us into a $3 billion per week war that has killed hundreds of thousands. The worst may be yet to come.

Joni Mitchell had it right: "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?"

An shorter version of this commentary aired July 23 and July 27 on KQED-FM as a Perspective.