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Viewpoint: Why I think newspapers will survive

By T.C. Cameron
Alan D. Mutter, who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur, this week carried a piece pining for his old newspaper, the Chicago Daily News by re-running an article from 2005. He was there the day the presses were halted on March 4, 1978. He correctly pointed out that the failure of the Daily News and other afternoon newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s holds lessons for today’s publishers.

To younger newspaper people, it may seem unimaginable that many newspapers failed in an era most in the print industry now consider the golden age, but afternoon dailies failed by the dozens.

“There were no home computers, no Internet, no iPods and no cellphones to get between our readers and us in 1978,” Mutter wrote. “Still, circulation dropped. The management was changed. Circulation dropped. We redesigned the paper. Circulation dropped. We tinkered with the product … In the end, there was nothing left to do. Some 300 people lost their jobs. Chicago lost a great newspaper.”

There is a subtle, important lesson here. It’s not why a paper fails, but why not? Like any other for-profit venture, there’s dozens of way a publication can fail. Failure to be vigilant in perfecting your business model probably tops the list.

Those of us from Detroit know where this story could end. We watched the auto giants, which had built the Great Lakes region, fail miserably. When they did, nearly everything they helped build fell, too. Many of us live and work elsewhere because of it. We watched our parents flourish, but it crumbled and the sad narrative of decline was the only thing left to write.

The automakers failed because they looked the other way too many times at a broken business model. They lost a point or two in market share nearly every year starting in the mid-1970s while giving unsustainable contracts to labor unions. Lee Iacocca had to rescue Chrysler in the 1980s, but massive profit margins from SUV’s and minivans churned out huge profits. Problems solved.

The lessons of 40 years went unheeded and suddenly, Detroit was on Uncle Sam’s doorstep asking for a life-saving infusion of cash. Like the thousands of auto dealers nationwide, there's a newspaper serving every city, town or village in America.

There will be no government intervention for our industry. But I think the newspaper industry is going to survive. We’re looking at everything, because nothing in our industry is sacred anymore. It doesn’t feel good, and we won’t look like we once did, but it’s going to save us.

It’s easy to be down on the newspaper industry, as Mutter’s blog often is. The numbers are still discouraging. Circulation and advertising are down. This week, Canada’s biggest paper announced plans to outsource some editing jobs. Pay cuts and layoffs are somewhat common.

Hardly news to celebrate, but it’s not the entire story. After years of trying to stop the bleeding, the industry is trying new ideas. New audiences are being built online. Internet reporting has improved exponentially in the past 15 years. Paywalls are being erected, and while they may or may not save the industry, they represent a gateway to the new media frontier. Our industry is smarter, too, utilizing social media as a tool to drive traffic and lure advertisers.

We don’t have it all figured out. What’s important is we’re trying. We’re not waiting to watch it fail.
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