Friday, August 1, 2008


Voices in and around the newspaper industry would have us believe the industry is falling apart and taking its last gaps. Investors are fleeing newspaper companies, publishers are decrying the lack of newspaper advertising growth, debt challenges are plaguing many companies, and there are layoffs and buyouts everywhere.

If one rationally looks at the industry, however, one sees that it is fundamentally sound, but that a unique, financially golden period in its history is ending. It is that change which is creating the bulk of the turmoil in the industry, but the biggest problem is that those working in the industry have short memories about the newspaper business and don't remember it any other way.

The generation leading newspapers and newspaper companies today has only experienced a period in which extraordinary growth of advertising increased newspaper revenue across the nation. That growth, combined with the development of local monopolies, created a period that enriched papers highly. This, of course, created great interest in investors and produced capital that allowed public companies to grow and acquire papers, driving up newspaper prices and the value of newspaper assets.

Today, the conditions that drove the growth of the past 3 decades are ending, wealth is being stripped from the industry, investors are losing interest, and publishers are struggling with negative and low growth.

Things are terrible, right? They are worse than every before, aren’t they?

Those views are only true if one takes a limited historical perspective and conceives the industry as a way to riches, something few newspaper owners did in generations past. With the exception of a few major cities, one could not get rich being a newspaper owner. Publishers nationwide could make a living in newspaper, but much of their reward came from being socially influential in the community. Before the extraordinary profitability of the last quarter of the 20th century, newspapers were relatively unprofitable and breaking even was the primary financial goal of most publishers.

Contemporary developments are taking us back toward that situation, but even with the u-turn in the business, we need to recognize that newspaper revenue today is better than it was in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In fact, adjusted for inflation, newspapers in 2007 had two and a half times the advertising income that they had in 1950. In terms of employment, there are still twenty percent more journalists working in newspapers than in the highly profitable years that fueled the growth of corporate newspapering.

Those working in the newspaper industry need to be realistic and understand what the effects of contemporary changes mean. They don’t mean disaster, but they mean changes in the business of newspapers, the way the industry has operated for the past three decades, and how they need to perceive the industry.