Is the Newspaper Dying?

You can’t blame Steve Smith if he loses sleep at night. The editor of the Spokesman-Review is an avid media buff who keeps close tabs on news about the news business. And lately, the news has been bad.

Reporters are being laid off at the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Herald, the San Jose Mercury News. Earlier this month, some 900 newspaper jobs were eliminated in a single week. The cost of newsprint is higher than it’s been in 12 years, and papers saw record drops in advertising in the first quarter of 2008. The New York Times declared that “this year is taking shape as [the] worst on record.”

The national trend has hit Spokane, too. Seven months after the Spokesman-Review gutted its North Idaho office and laid off 14 journalists (losing eight or nine more to voluntary resignations in the process), it recently announced that it will be cutting page counts in its A, Northwest and Sports sections, as well as in its weekly entertainment supplement, 7. It’s cutting back on distribution costs by, among other things, eliminating to-your-door delivery in certain areas. Weekday circulation is down to less than 90,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. On June 2, Smith announced that, starting that morning, a series of local vacation stories they’ve been calling “Stay and Play” would supplant the usual Monday Northwest cover. He wondered, on one of the paper’s many blogs, if the decision might appear to favor soft news over hard news, but acknowledged that they were already filling Monday’s section with “junk wire news” anyway.

With newspapers across the country shrinking, dying and staring at bankruptcy, is the Spokesman-Review on its way out?

Depends which Spokesman-Review you’re talking about, says Smith. In his sixth year as editor, Smith says that while they haven’t been hit as hard by the pressures bearing on most dailies — especially declines in real estate and automotive classified advertising — the newspaper is still feeling the pain.

“We’re in exactly the same boat,” he says, with the costs of health care, newsprint and personnel going up and revenues steadily declining. However, after a re-budgeting effort undertaken last month, he says he thinks that the company won’t see any layoffs this year. He told his employees as much last Tuesday, in an hour-long, full-staff meeting that videographer Colin Mulvany described as “sobering.”

“Steve laid it out,” says Mulvany. “He can’t guarantee anybody’s job, including his own. That’s a scary thing to realize: Nobody’s safe.”

Veteran arts and entertainment reporter Jim Kershner said the meeting was comparatively hopeful. “No layoffs were announced. It was kind of a relief,” he says. Still, Kershner, who is also the president of the paper’s union, sounds glum. He views the newspaper as both a business and a public service and says that the more it’s forced to cut back on staff and page space, the less of a service it is to the public. “We’ve been essentially shrinking since maybe 2000,” he says. “There’s fewer beats, there are fewer people on beats. It’s much harder to fulfill our traditional obligations — much less as the newspaper of record, where you try to cover everything you possibly can. We’re already at a point where we can’t do that.”

Kershner, who is nearing retirement, worries especially for younger staff members and says the mood around the office has been “nervous and apprehensive.”

“People have invested their whole lives and careers in journalism, and they want to stay in it, and they want to be in a job they’re proud of,” he says. “There’s just a lot of uncertainty about whether they’re going to be able to continue to do that.”

James Hagengruber knows the feeling. A talented reporter who covered natural resources from the Spokesman’s North Idaho bureau, he was one of the 14 staffers laid off in November. And though he’s quick to point out that Smith and other upper-level managers were always supportive of his ideas and projects, he questions the way the management went about the downsizing — laying people off and then offering buyouts, instead of the other way around. He mourns the loss of top-flight talent.

“Virginia [DeLeon] covered cultures and religion better than anybody around. JoNel [Aleccia] — she hadn’t been there very long, but pretty much every story she wrote was on the front page. She’s [now] a national health care reporter for MSNBC.” He also questions the remaining staffers’ re-assigned roles. Prized environmental reporter Karen Dorn Steele is now writing about courts. Gifted courts and political reporter Thomas Clouse “did some really great courts and criminal stuff, and now he’s one of their backpack mobile journalists doing the morning traffic stuff.”

“They’re doing more of the local television news stories,” Hagengruber says. “A lot more fire, weather and traffic stories, where in the past we were doing stories on the fire department and scandals inside, or traffic patterns.” Looking at the bigger picture, he says, it seems “like they [are] chasing ambulances.”

Steve Smith has a different take. Yes, the newspaper is hurting. But despite sagging circulation, he says the Spokesman’s market penetration is as good as ever. Besides, he’s hopeful about the other Spokesman-Reviews — the one that’s on the Internet, the one that’s on the radio, the one that’s on your cell phone. “We don’t even think of print as our primary function anymore. We made that cultural leap a long time ago,” he says. “It’s a period of transition. You gotta be in online, you gotta be in mobile. In fact, we’re going to devote a good chunk of this year to mobile. You’ve gotta be on the radio. In the end, we have to be on TV.”

In February, the paper announced that it had hired three full-time radio professionals to produce short bottom-of-the-hour programs to air on KJRB. On June 25, Smith wrote on his “News is a Conversation” blog that the paper would launch a new one-hour weekday radio show featuring 7 columnist and former Mark Fuhrman sidekick Rebecca Mack, starting Aug. 4.

Smith also says that the company has invested hugely in revamping its Website, which it will begin to roll out over the summer, with the aim of fully deploying it by fall. “[Online director] Ryan Pitts thinks it’ll be, frankly, the coolest Website in the country — anything short of the big three or four papers,” he boasts.

Colin Mulvany says it’s a great time for experimentation at the Spokesman. “When I started in video four years ago, very few of us in the country were doing this full-time. Now every major paper in the country is doing video,” he says. “It’s a goat trail of innovation — people trying things and if it doesn’t work, they try something else. We’re waiting for something that’s going to stick.”

That last part is crucial. Smith will be the first to point out that these new platforms aren’t paying the bills yet. “What good publishers understand is that we have to sustain these newsrooms not for the present but for the potential of revenue growth down the road.”

Kelly McBride thinks that’s necessary. A professor at the nonprofit journalism think tank the Poynter Institute (and a former reporter for the Spokesman-Review), she says, “Nobody knows what the secret formula is going to be, and it’s most likely not going to be one new source of revenue, but it’s going to be a lot of little sources of revenue. Certainly figuring out how many different ways of putting your content out [is key].”

What all this means to the way news is gathered and disseminated is unclear, McBride says. “Daily newspapers are the source for a lot of original reporting. The daily paper does a story, it gets picked up by a wire service, [which] gets picked up by television. There’s a feeding chain that happens with news, and it starts with the daily newspaper. It’s not really clear as [they] shrink and shrink and shrink what’s going to happen to the important parts of that feeding chain, the parts that really impact democracy.”

Steve Smith says it’s this kind of newspaper journalism — not the newspapers themselves — that he’s interested in saving. “We’re still actually a pretty damn good newspaper on many levels. We still have a full-time investigative reporter. We do a pretty good job on watchdog. And we still piss people off. But, boy, it’s just getting harder,” he says, with a sigh. “And who knows what the next platform will be? There’s just no way of knowing. But our goal is to be there, to keep that core group of journalists producing content for whatever platform comes our way.”

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