Balancing digital, print poses a challenge

It's no secret that many newspapers are mired with staff reductions. While many expect management to replace old journalists with cheaper - and more tech-savvy - reporters, the trend is in flux as newspapers learn the economics of online publishing.

It's no secret that many newspapers are mired with staff reductions. While many expect management to replace old journalists with cheaper - and more tech-savvy - reporters, the trend is in flux as newspapers learn the economics of online publishing.

A recent Pew Research Center survey reflects this newsroom transition. Somber figures reiterate the glum news that has become the steady chorus of the news business: cutbacks, layoffs, and buyouts. For instance, the Pew survey found that 85% of dailies with circulations of more than 100,000 have cut newsrooms in the last three years, and more than half the editors at large dailies expect to have to initiate layoffs this year.

However, the survey also indicates that editors consider the emergence of newspaper Web sites to be a source of hope. Yet, the odd dichotomy newspapers are faced with is the prospect of being both a declining, mature industry and an emerging one at the same time, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"[Newspapers] know their future is online, but the advertisers are not migrating on the Web along with the readers, so at the moment they need the print edition to subsidize the entire edition, even though they know the print edition is shrinking," he says.

Online editions are growing, but the figures are not well reflected in the financial reports, leaving investors wondering whether they should treat newspapers amid a reinvention - like a Silicon Valley startup - and let an economic model surface once an audience is built, Rosenstiel says.

"Is it wise to cutback this much? If you're a mature industry, no, but if you're [an] emerging industry, there is this rift that you've cutback the franchise so much that it will affect [future profitability]," he adds.

If outlets stick with the traditional profit model, they have to first show that the online product can meet expected advertising revenues. However, Rosenstiel notes that sales teams must first reevaluate their ad revenue model, because print ads can't be translated online.

Even so, Dan Rohn, the founder of JournalismJobs.com, says that the industry is building online sales teams and investing in Web site producers, at least based on the advertisements posted on his site.

Yet, even if the company's intent, following a round of layoffs, is to hire more Web-focused employees, the transition isn't often immediate, Rosenstiel notes.

"If the economy worsens, you're in a hiring freeze, but if you have a better quarter, you might hire back," he says.

Denis Finley, editor of The Virginian-Pilot and a participant in the Pew survey, says the newspaper has cut about 10% of its staff since last March and created new positions for Web-savvy reporters. Like most newspapers, the Pilot is in the throes of figuring out the best Web strategy for readers, but navigating this space is daunting for even the most tech-savvy reporters.

"It used to be that you had to do one thing very well," he says. "Now you're doing five things... [including] keeping up with all different ways we have to be adept at delivering information."

But if newsrooms are overwhelmed and experimenting with Web features like blogs, Twitter, video, and photo galleries, can they produce a product good enough to turn a profit? According to the Pew survey, maybe they can. Of the editors surveyed, 56% believe their news product is better than it was three years ago, and most are optimistic about the industry making a comeback following its transition online.

"Some of these layoffs and buyouts are so fresh, we [might] not have seen that second wave of breathing in yet - we [might] have just seen the breathing out," Rosenstiel says.

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