Two announcements from the world of media giants jolted readers in recent days. First, the New York Times Company sold the Boston Globe for $75 million, a mere 10 percent of what it paid to acquire the Globe in 1993.
Then the Graham family, long-time owners of the Washington Post, sold their holdings for the modest sum of $250 million, after turning down $2.1 billion a few years earlier.
How did the once-supreme arrive here? What’s to learn from it?
Growing up a typical kid in the Midwest, I looked forward to visiting my grandmother, who kept a subscription to the Milwaukee Journal before it merged with the Sentinel.
Her revered Journal, with its signature “Green Sheet” feature on green-tinted newsprint inside, arrived every afternoon, the home for the comics, crossword puzzles and human-interest stories. Not since have I seen one like it.
Later, newspapers came to my front door, were purchased at a newsstand or read over a lunch counter. Mornings never seemed complete without one.
But we face partings-of-the-way with our hard-copy newspaper, and sooner than we realize. Circulations have dropped industry-wide, along with revenues and profitability.
With fresh rounds of staff cut-backs, following earlier consolidations, some publications distribute print editions three times a week or less, going online the remaining days. Are deficits at the New York Times a bellwether for the whole industry?
Current trends portend revenue losses along several fronts, since ads can account for 75 percent or more of revenues. When fewer eyes meet copy, advertisers begin looking elsewhere. Craigslist and Monster.com are spiriting away even the classifieds business.
Facing shrunken budgets, publishers are forced to cut costs and consequently reduce content and the attractiveness of their product. By no means are the large newspapers — New York Times (lagging the Wall Street Journal), Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and others — immune.
Newspapers gamely struggle to come up with solutions. They attribute the erosion of reader interest to competition from the Internet. Other threats are lurking.
According to a new Gallup poll, America’s confidence in mass media dropped to 22 percent “strongly approving.” Only 33 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans say they hold much confidence in newspapers or TV news.
Gallup traces the difference between the groups to perceived bias. Conservatives and Republicans see opinion crowding out factual content from the front page.
Perceptions wouldn’t matter so much, except we’ve become a nation divided sharply along ideological lines. And as more and more Americans depend on some form of governmental assistance, fewer are left to pay the bills.
Fiscal conservatives object to news stories portraying dependence as virtuous. Social conservatives object to “political correctness” that depreciates their values and traditions.
Both groups suspect the media, especially the national mainstream media, of favoring certain constituencies. They respond by canceling subscriptions.
Is there a silver lining? Ground could be recovered through better balance. Conservative writers would welcome more opportunities to make their views known in the mainstream media, as privileged minorities of them do now.
Juxtaposing syndicated essays (dueling pundits) doesn’t satisfy readers who’d like to hear it straight from qualified writers.
Blue-lining prejudicial material from wire-service articles might persuade former subscribers (far more than media executives realize) that their “ex” is again playing fair.
By labeling conservatives as “extreme right-wingers” en bloc or global-warming skeptics as “climate-change deniers,” certain writers succeed in pleasing their progressive audience. But editorial indiscretion turns off millions who once upon a time paid for subscriptions.
Or, publishers might bring back the Green Sheet. It always was free of ad hominem.
William D. Balgord, Ph.D., heads Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Middleton, Wis.