The Death of the Times-Dispatch

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m one of the guys fired from the Times-Dispatch during the last few weeks. I have no regrets nor rancor for the paper itself, and in this post, I am deliberately being as objective and as reasonable as I can . . . and one hundred percent certain of my interpretation of the facts. I’ve been in the newspaper business for 14 years. I know a little about it.

So let’s get to it.

The Tribune Company, corporate parent of the Chicago Trib and the Daily Press on the Peninsula, just last week declared bankruptcy. The Miami Herald is for sale. The Christian Science Monitor, as of September, is an online-only paper. The Detroit papers will soon be going to a three-day a week schedule. The Virginian Pilot in Norfolk just laid off 125 employees and they’re cutting pages. The owner of the New York Times doesn’t think his paper will be around in five years. And a couple of years ago, Warren Buffett said that within twenty years, we would no longer have print newspapers as we know them today.

I love newspapers. News, comics, ads, everything. When I’m on vacation, I buy the USA Today and whatever the local paper is, and sometimes the Sunday NYT. I’m a reader. I’m an information junkie. Newspapers help me to learn, to understand.

But I’m not blind. I face the facts and accept the inevitable. I’m a realist.

The newspaper industry is in an unavoidable crisis. It’s been dying slowly, and it isn’t pretty. The cost of newsprint is ever-increasing. General readership is dwindling. Its remaining readers and subscribers, generally over 40, are dying off day by day, and today’s youth — everybody under 40 — are turning elsewhere for news and information. The Times-Dispatch’s competition isn’t Style or the Richmond Free Press; it’s everything: television shows, radio, books, soccer practice, church, shopping, going to movies, dining out, surfing the Web, having sex, driving in rush hour, washing the dog, texting, Twittering, Facebooking, going to the National, vacationing, the Skins game…every damn thing is competition.

Buffett’s prediction may actually have come true in twenty years — if the recession we’re now in had not begun a year ago and is expected to last another year. Now newspapers are in an economic freefall and most don’t have parachutes. Upper management, egotistic and self-assured in the permanence of not only the Fourth Estate, but of their own individual corporate fiefdoms, have been slow to react to the computerization of the world. The RTD didn’t even begin building pages on computers (pagination) until seven or eight years ago. And until now, they have been incapable of comprehending on a basic, submolecular level of cultural consciousness, that the newspaper — their own, old, dinosaurian, inbred world — is no longer necessary to an American public that can read and watch news on their cell phones and Blackberries.

The future is here. It is a future of electronic delivery. It is a future that is evolving daily, being shaped by the readers of the 21st century, who are eschewing an outdated, old-fashioned print product with news that is, to them, already out of date when they read it, for news that is customizable, up to the minute, and on demand.

And the newspaper is dead.

The Times-Dispatch isn’t dying. It’s already dead.

Upper management, in their bow ties and suspenders, might finally be admitting this fact to themselves — I think, by now, they have to face the facts — but their public face, and the face they show to their regular employees, is quite the opposite. “Nope, nothing wrong here. Oh sure, we’re in a slump; but we’re the Times-Dispatch. We’ll bounce back. The paper ALWAYS bounces back.”

You have to read between the lines to figure out the whole story, because the bigwigs ain’t admitting anything — it might affect the stock prices. So, you have to ask yourself why:

1. Why is the RTD Advertising department interested in only short-term profit instead of long-range strategies?
2. Why the firing of so many employees, mostly from middle management?
3. Why were the Research employees let go? Aren’t surveys and demographics important business tools?
4. Why was the entire advertising art department let go at the RTD’s sister paper in Tampa…and soon at the Winston-Salem paper?
5. Is there any growth in the newspaper industry?

The answers as I see them (and I could be wrong . . . but I doubt it):

1. Short-term profits — selling as much advertising on a monthly basis — is the only goal when upper management already knows that there is no long-term for the RTD. The writing has been on the wall for years, and only now are they taking off the blinders. Unfortunately, they’re using a shotgun approach toward revenue that scatters sales efforts instead of focusing on profitable ventures. It’s knee-jerk reactionary. It’s worse than short-term; it’s short-sighted.
2. Money. Pure and simple. It’s not just weeding out a few non-essential FTEs; it’s removing the middle managers and others who are being paid higher salaries…higher than management thinks they should.
3. Money, number 1; but more importantly, why would the RTD need research and demographics to convince advertisers the paper is a better vehicle than TV or radio . . . if the RTD itself won’t be around much longer? There’s the rub.
4. Money. Bottom line. And here’s the kicker: they’re outsourcing every local ad produced for the Tampa paper . . . to India. Seriously. Winston-Salem will probably go with the Indian concern, too. We have to wonder when, not if, the RTD will follow suit. A score or more good people soon to be let go . . .
5. The only recognizable growth is in the Internet . . . and newspapers still don’t know what they’re doing in regard to seeing optimum advertising potential. How can Internet sales reps get any real sales effort accomplished if every rep has a weekly goal of 100 face-to-face calls with prospective advertisers? 100 appointments and fruitless cold calls a week. That’s simply impossible — and idiotic. Again: the shotgun tactic. It’s as ineffectual as most of the Internet sales managers.

So here’s the thing: here’s why they’re even trying to keep the RTD going, despite its inevitable funeral, despite that it’s dead already and they keep kicking the corpse around: because they have to. As bad as the situation is, the paper is still bringing in revenue — just not a profit. Online advertising is nowhere near replacing the revenue that print advertising brings in. Sure, they’ll keep reducing the staff as circulation drops lower and lower; they’ll redesign the look not to make a better product, but to cut page count, and thereby newsprint costs. They’ll save money where they can, but revenue will continue to fall . . . because the core product, the newspaper, has been replaced by news on television and the Internet.

That’s why the purchase of Richmond.com was considered a sound investment: a massive increase of page views and potentially an increase of ad revenue.

And the bow ties know the RTD will eventually be forced to cease publication, probably sooner than later — hence the new commandment from on high, introduced last month to the sales staffs, of Web-First. Starting at that last-minute November meeting, with an imperative to begin in January 2009, all sales efforts are to push online advertising first, and newspaper advertising second.

Online is now priority one. I repeat: sales emphasis is on the Web first, print second.

That has to tell you something.

Newspapers — the old way — are no longer viable. There is no growth. There is only stagnation.

Is there a way to save newspapers? Hell if I know. I think niche publications will survive in this century, such as Style, Brick, Skirt and Centro. Converting the RTD to a local news-only paper will cut a huge amount of costs…but it will also alienate the readers who need national and world news. I wouldn’t read a local news-only paper. It’s a step backwards to the Hooterville Gazette.

The fact is, it may be time for the traditional newspaper to go the way of the dinosaur. Evolve or die. We all may just have to accept that.

Can the RTD evolve?

Ask the bow ties. They won’t tell you the truth — a truth they hate and fear the most.

The RTD has already gone the way of the dinosaur. There is no higher rung on the ladder for a print newspaper. They can only step down a rung or two . . . or jump off.

Look: this is just symbolic, but it’s indicative of what’s wrong with almost every newspaper in the country, and it’s right on the front page:

The masthead — traditionally printed in an old-fashioned font, reflecting bygone values, which has absolutely no connection, no relevance, to people born after 1960. It represents an industry that today’s generations are more than willing to live without. And it’s not just the RTD logo; it’s the Old English logos for most American newspapers. Compare it to the masthead of a paper I think will survive beyond 2026 — because this newspaper makes a conscious effort to keep up with current trends and generations:


Online will rise until the Next Greatest Thing takes its place — whatever that may be. Paradigms will continue to shift, technologies will evolve, and print will sink into the tar pits of mass communication along with the teletype and the rotary phone, to be later rediscovered, cleaned off and studied like ancient insects in amber.

The era of Woodward and Bernstein is history. It’s time for all the Charles Foster Kane wanna-bes to whisper “Rosebud” on their journalistic death beds.

The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post and Fark are the real newspapers of the 21st Century.

The Times-Dispatch is dead. The Next Age is beginning.

I’m not happy about it. But I have to accept it.

I’m a realist.

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15 thoughts on “The Death of the Times-Dispatch

  1. Now all I have to decide is whether to shoot myself before or after going to work tomorrow. That is if the doors are still unlocked.

    Thanks for the pep talk.

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  2. Very eloquent, but anyone with a brain could see this coming.

    But here is a question for you: The Times Dispatch made a big deal about how they were staying downtown and should be worshiped by lowly citizens as an anchor of downtown. So what’s going to happen to downtown if the paper closes down?

    It does not look pretty, but at least its real.

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  3. Why should people pay to read a newspaper that reports little news, but contains much opinion. The days of objective “reporters” are long gone. Now, we have commentators who spoon feed us our opinions on the current politically correct crap they want the masses to believe. People are sick of it. If I’m going to subject myself to it, I might just as well get it free on the internet as to pay to have it delivered to my house.

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  4. What’s going to happen to downtown is the same thing that will happen to any downtown that loses a major employer. Businesses will suffer, restaurants may close and eventually it will recover. Something else will take it’s place and we’ll all move on.

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  5. It’s also too bad for RTD that their online presence is woeful. I recently emailed that the RSS feeds were not working and rec’d no response. I have since removed it from iGoogle. Navigating the pages is painful. Articles are posted by date in a random order. If the hardcopy is dying, get with it online.

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  6. What do you think about the future of Smalltown Gazette? Is your opinion that even the hyper-local community newspaper is dead as well. As a community weekly owner, I can tell you that we have made the move to online publishing and it just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to readers. They want to see they local news and have an opportunity to frame little Johnny’s baseball game picture that was in the newspaper.
    The local newspaper still has something to offer.

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  7. Hi, Anonymous of the Smalltown Gazette. I think that the hyper-local paper certainly has a future, as it fulfills the needs of its target audience. In other words, it is a niche publication.

    Your problems will, I think, increase over the years, and I think you’ll find your core niche shrinking. For instance, the cost of paper is going higher and higher. If you’re a really small town paper, you’re probably having your paper commercially printed by a big player in the region. As paper costs go up, the big player’s price to you goes up exponentially — hell, they need a profit, too. At the same time, young people in your community are not reading your paper, and the older folks who do are slowly dying, one by one. It’s a sad fact, but every obit in the paper of someone over 40 means another subscriber is gone.

    Journalism and newspapering isn’t a tough business, because people always want and need the news; but surviving IS a tough business when you have a product that was once a leader, once ubiquitous the world over . . . and is now only a secondary concern to the populace.

    Yes, little Johnny’s baseball game is great news, especially to little Johnny’s family and friends. But as the world — and the people even in your community — embrace technological and the accompanying sociological changes, are you going to be able to afford to publish pieces on little Johnny when Bubba can go online and read Pravda and listen to streaming music at the same time, when Darlene can get recipes from Food Network.com instead of your food pages — and find out the sales at Food Lion — and when kids can write school reports on current events based on reporting from a hundred newspapers . . . but not yours, because it’s all hyperlocal news.

    Yes, you have a niche, but your struggles to maintain a community or rural audience will increase. It’s globalization. You have to be ready to read the signs. Here’s a sign I think is vital: The RTD laid off its staff in Commercial Printing last week. In other words, all those little papers the RTD printed for communities like yours now have to find a new printer or go out of business. If the RTD can’t make a go of commercial printing — maybe their rates for little papers were very reasonable, thus not very profitable — think what you and your contemporaries are going to have to pay for printing now and in the future.

    A hyperlocal online? The Key West Citizen does it. But Key West is a different animal than here, and perhaps somewhat more cosmopolitan.

    There is no such thing as a good newspaper website — at least, not yet. And I bet only a handful of the big boys are pulling in a profit from online. Your community (combined with your web design and content) are going to determine the success of your online presence. But I honestly can’t think of a newspaper website that is financially stable all on its own. Fark.com comes closest, but it’s an aggregator.

    I don’t have an answer for you about online. I do wish you the best — I wish ALL newspapers the best. I just ask that you prepare yourself for the future. Most big papers didn’t, and now they’re scrambling to survive. Hyperlocals have a slightly longer future ahead of them . . . but. And it’s a big, unknown but.

    Good luck.

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  8. To Anonymous (SB):
    “we need more sustainable development downtown”

    How do you categorize the RTD as un”sustainable”. After all it has managed to publish for 150 years. Even if it does go under, I’d say that’s a pretty good run in anybody’s book.

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  9. Hi, Rusty,

    Sorry to hear you’ve joined the ever-lengthening list of top-notch RTD and MG folk who got the boot – and in the middle of a recession that makes it nearly impossible to find another job. You’re right, of course, about everything. It’s sad, but true. Best of luck to you.

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  10. Rusty,

    I’m so sorry to read that you’re not there. You’re a good guy with a ton of experience. Take that expertise somewhere that can really use it. There’s a lot of smaller companies that could really benefit from someone who has a strong understanding of co-op advertising. Give me a call, if you get a chance.

    Like

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