Commentary

This wolf call is real

By John McManus
Posted January 24, 2005
(An earlier version aired in KQED-FM's Perspectives series, 1/24/05)

Newspapers have been crying "wolf" at least since the 1930s when they tried to persuade the government to block radio stations from carrying any news.

But now the wolf really is at the door. Or wolves.

With hundred-channel cable and satellite and gazillion-site Internet, VCRs, DVDs and video games all grasping for our leisure time -- no newspaper can hope to keep the market share it held as little as 30 years ago.

John McManus

Add the time-strain of both spouses working and commuter jams. The competition for the public's attention is fiercer than ever. Newspapers even compete against themselves, offering their stories free on the Web.

As a result, the proportion of subscribing households is plummeting.

Advertising, which accounts for more than 75% of total newspaper revenue, is also under siege. The most profitable ads -- the classifieds -- are fleeing to Craigslist, e-Bay and Monster. A recent report carried by the International Newspaper Marketing Association said Craigslist alone had cost Bay Area newspapers $65 million annually in employment ads. The Macys and Albertsons that buy display ads are losing business to Costco and Wal-Mart, which rarely advertise.

Finally, corporate executives are flogging exhausted newsrooms to maintain the extraordinary profits of the last quarter century. Leaner news staffs share reporting burdens with corporate siblings. The San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, for example, are now relying on each other's sports and Sacramento bureau reporters. And editors desperate for circulation are following the common appetite rather than leading public discourse.

You can feel the strain in recent circulation scandals, with newspaper execs inflating the number of eyeballs they sell to advertisers. You can see it in the turnover of newspaper publishers. Three new faces in four years at both the San Francisco Chronicle and Mercury News.

Newspapers are based on economies of scale. Most costs -- of news-gathering, the fleet of delivery trucks, the hundred million dollar press -- are fixed. They don't fall when the paper is dropped at every fifth house instead of every other.

Democracy's most reliable companion, the one so important it was written into the Constitution, is really in trouble this time.