MURPHY: We take lickings, but we keep ticking

J.K. Murphy

J.K. Murphy

About six months ago, I used this space to give my take on the newspaper industry and how it relates to us here at the Daily Post.

The latest bad news came last week when circulation figures for the largest U.S. dailies were released. The last six months saw another 10 percent slide. (By the way, circulation at the Daily Post has been rock solid -- 61,000 daily; 104,000 Sunday.)

For someone who's spent 30 years newspapering, the news about newspapers is more than disconcerting. I wonder how newspaper readers feel about what's happening to a product that's been an intrinsic part of their lives. And I wonder if they wonder about the future of the Daily Post.

Some pundits say newspapers are dinosaurs destined for a similar fate. I don't buy it, and here's why:

History is on our side

Name an industry that's lasted as long as newspapers have while making so few fundamental changes to the product. Basically, we've been putting ink on paper and delivering it to the masses since the 16th century.

In the 1930s, radio was going to be the death of newspapers. In the 1950s, it was television. In each case, newspapers saw a new media take a big bite out of their advertising revenue, but the industry adapted, survived -- and even thrived. Today, we're told, the Internet is going to be the death of newspapers.

How we got to today

Much of the bad news you read about newspapers is due to debt followed by a downturn in the economy. A few years ago, the newspaper industry was on a voracious binge of mergers and acquisitions. The McClatchy chain bought Knight-Ridder's 40-plus newspapers, including the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer. Lee Enterprises bought Pulitzer's 14 dailies including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Arizona Daily Star. Rupert Murdoch acquired the Wall Street Journal. The list goes on, and each transaction created debt. The three deals mentioned totaled nearly $15 billion. It was shortly after this barrage of dealmaking that the economy went kaput.

Servicing this debt was difficult in a stable economy. Once revenue started slipping, it became impossible for many to keep up.

When the economy recovers and people are going back to work and buying houses and cars, newspapers will share in the rebound.

The role of community newspapers

Much of what you hear about the newspaper industry applies to the big boys. Major metropolitan newspapers often focus on national and world news -- a commodity that, thanks to the Internet, is available from thousands of sources.

Community newspapers such as the Daily Post, however, deliver coverage you can't get anywhere else. We feast on local news. No one covers Gwinnett politics, city halls, neighborhood restaurants, entertainment venues, high school sports, the local police beat, etc. like we do. This is news you can't get elsewhere. If you want to know what's going on on the other side of the world, you have myriad places to go. But if you want to know what's going on on the other side of town, you'll need to look at the Post.

That's why, in this downturn, community newspapers such as the Daily Post will fare better than the big dailies.

The Internet

No doubt that lurking behind all other issues is the Internet. Like radio and television before it, this online medium is taking its fair share of advertising dollars.

Newspapers have embraced the Web, but haven't been able to come up with a business model that works. Web advertising brings in less revenue than print advertising and because most content on the Internet is free, browsers are reluctant to pay for content.

Newsrooms are expensive, and newspapers are accustomed to being paid for content through subscription fees. On the Internet today, newspaper content is free. The hot debate within the industry is whether a pay model will work. Some say it has to happen, that newspapers can't afford to produce the content and then give it away. Others say the ship has sailed on consumers paying for anything on the Internet.

The question boils down to which is more lucrative: charging for site access or keep it free and bring more eyeballs -- and advertiser interest -- to the site. The jury is still out on this one.

Perhaps more than any other, the newspaper industry is mature. They've been cash cows for generations. The profits may never return to those of the glory days of the press, but I believe the cow still has a lot of milk to give.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.