Save the Newspapers

To: J. Keith Moyer, Publisher, Minneapolis Star Tribune; Par Ridder, Publisher, St. Paul Pioneer Press

This letter comes to you from a person essentially addicted to ink on paper. Many of us believe that democracy requires an informed citizenry and that informed citizenry is nurtured in newsprint. Newspapers often set the agenda for other media. Even Microsoft Corporation Senior Design Anthropologist Anne Kirah says print media are capable of things that online media are not, including making things easier to understand and remember. 

While the number of U.S. daily and Sunday newspapers is at an all-time high, total daily circulation has continued to decrease every year since 1960. And local advertising is falling for both daily and Sunday papers; McClatchy Company, owners of the Star Tribune, reported that advertising revenue last October had fallen 2.1 percent compared to the same month a year ago. And therein lies the first structural problem for newspapers: A newspaper has two constituencies. The first is, of course, the readers. The second constituency, which pays for newspapers, is the advertisers. If, at some point, readers continue to desert newspapers, advertisers will follow.

It is important that you gentlemen successfully preserve our newspapers. I was taken aback by Pioneer Press Editor Thom Fladung’s statement that he believed “there will be print editions, at least as long as you and I remain in the business, but probably not much longer.” The Economist predicts that fully half of the world’s general newspapers will fold over the next few decades. Accountability, however, does not flow from blogs or company-purchased PR flacks—it gets published in newspapers. This is why you gentlemen must succeed. It is in the interest of all of us that you do so. Herein follow a few suggestions.

Educated, sophisticated readers—a highly attractive advertising demographic—turn to newspapers for quality coverage. Dumbing down or eliminating news takes away your market differentiation; there are a lot of dumb media. Some commentators have suggested that recent declines in newspaper readership have been the consequence of excessive cuts in promotion and circulation budgets over the last five years. That’s a warning to the market-savvy. 

Seeing the Internet as salvation is the flavor of the day, similar to past flavors, such as service journalism. It is true that during the first nine months of 2006, Internet advertising on newspaper Web sites grew at a rate of 30 percent on average over the same period in 2005. Most papers, including the Star Tribune, report at least 25 percent readership figures on line. However, average industry figures show that less than 10 percent of all revenue for newspapers comes from the Web, and your newspapers are not an exception to that low number. 

Gentlemen, if you become nothing more than another outlet available on the Internet, you are on the same playing field with an infinite number of competitors. We readers will be forced to blog and slog our way through Web sites, and your ads and other content will be reached primarily through aggregators like Google and Yahoo! (to your economic decline). You should make your content available in a variety of platforms, but don’t confuse the medium with the message.

There are a number of messages that you can develop. Newspapers should be intensely local and informed. Coverage of local city halls should be available on line. High school activities and senior citizen activities attract interest, but little coverage. Large communities of interest exist around the Mall of America, the University of Minnesota, the airport, and faith-based organizations. All of these groups ought to be covered intensively, at least on line, with much of the content provided by the members, and indexed in your print publications. 

This is a highly literate community, and you are at least in part the keepers of that flame. We all wish you success and happy reporting.

Your Friend and Devoted Newspaper Reader,

Vance K. Opperman

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