No. 1: End of the boom — and the innovation ahead

After more than a decade of increasing concerns and warnings about the impending doom of print journalism, 2008 turned out to be the year the sky actually was falling in on American newspapers.

Looking back on the year in an article in The Toronto Star, Ryan Bigge wrote, “Newspapers struggled to disprove media guru Jeff Jarvis’s claim that print is dead.”

Print may be far from dead, but clearly declining profits and changing reader habits have captured the industry’s attention in a big way.

As we wrote in yesterday’s post, it was the year of the layoff. Newspapers cut more than 15,000 jobs in 2008. Many papers and chains did multiple rounds of layoffs over the course of the year.

It was a year where things that once seemed unthinkable became cold, hard reality.

Tribune, which has had financial issues since its purchase of Times Mirror several years ago, found itself in an even more precarious financial situation after Sam Zell’s purchase last year. Zell has said in interviews that his purchase of the company has been “the deal from hell.” And as the industry and nation’s economy has cratered, Zell has cut hundreds of jobs and pages from all the chain’s papers.

By early December rumors of a possible bankruptcy filing surfaced. Within days the filing was made, making many nervous about the economic viability of even the biggest chains.

This past summer, Newark’s Star-Ledger clarified Newhouse’s long-held job security pledge. Then, a couple of months later, the paper and its parent company warned that if 200 employees didn’t agree to a buyout and if the paper couldn’t reach agreements with unions representing drivers and mailers, the paper would be sold or possibly closed.

A couple months later, Jim Romenesko posted a memo from Star-Ledger publisher George Arwady that said, “Since it is doubtful that the Drivers will ratify an agreement by October 8, 2008, we will be sending formal notices to all employees this week, as required by both federal and New Jersey law, advising you that the Company will be sold, or, failing that, that it will close operations on January 5, 2009.”

Both unions agreed to concessions. It was a measure that saved the paper. For now.

A bad time for newspapers

Last spring, Tribune, looking for cash, sold Newsday to Cablevision for more than $600 million. By summer many analysts were wondering if such a sale could have been repeated.

By then newspapers became a much tougher sale as it became harder and harder to put a value on properties as both the nation’s economy and the future of print became more and more questionable.

Whether it was a new financial prudence or buyers already laden with too much debt, newspaper properties that would have had no trouble finding suitors in the past couldn’t close the deal.

One of those jewels sitting out on the market was The San Diego Union-Tribune. A property long coveted by chains like Hearst, the U-T finally went on the market in July and ended the year without a buyer.

The Pulitzer-winning Rocky Mountain News was put up for sale in early December after $11 million in losses in nine months this year. According to the New York Times, Rich Boehne, president and chief executive of the E. W. Scripps Company, had told a stunned newsroom if nobody bought the Rocky by mid-January, Scripps would consider closing the paper.

A cover story about the paper’s sale in Denver’s alt weekly Westword contained the headline, “What are the odds that someone will buy the Rocky? Microscopic and none.” While speculation remains that the paper will be shuttered in the first quarter of 2009, there’s been no official decision on the Rocky’s fate from Scripps.

The Landmark chain did manage to sell its Weather Channel, but put up and pulled back all its newspaper properties, including the Virginian Pilot and Roanoke Times. The company said they would try again to sell their newspaper assets when the credit crunch eased.

In an article announcing the move in late October, newspaper analyst John Morton told the Pilot, “The market is awash in sellers and no buyers. Right now it’s the credit, but it wasn’t happening before the credit tied up. People are very leery. They’re not sure what they should pay or how well the newspapers are going to come out of the recession they’ve been in.”

It will be a while before we see how newspapers weather the recession. The news out of Detroit and from retailers this holiday season make the ad outlook for 2009 look even more bleak.

The economic predictions for early 2009 are a harsh extension of what this year brought. More layoffs, more bankruptcies and, most likely, the outright shuttering of some major properties.

In her post “Pragmatic Media Predictions for 2009,” Diane Mermigas predicts:

“Many individual and group TV and newspaper properties will collapse under the weight of an advertising recession and legacy costs. Their online and other digital revenues will fail to offset double-digit ad losses. Loan covenants and debt payments will be missed. Some will shut down; a few will sell off in a dismal deal market.”

But Mermigas and others see the possibility that if newspapers take this opportunity to smartly reinvent their products and change their economic models, they could emerge with more value on the other side.

Others, such as Edward Roussel, argue that there’s little to be done about the current economic situation except to focus on the future. “The best approach for battle-weary media executives may be to let the fire run its course—however counterintuitive that might seem. That’s partly because there is little the newspaper industry can do to stop the advancing flames. But it’s also because today’s obsession with saving newspapers has meant that, for the most part, media companies have failed to plan adequately for tomorrow’s digital future. The economic downturn has added to the urgent need for a change of direction.”

And, of course, we all take hope in a tidbit gleaned from a post on LAObserved that’s also been widely reported elsewhere: While talking about the rumor of further layoffs at the Los Angeles Times, editor Russ Stanton “offered the tidbit that revenue from now exceeds the cost of the paper’s editorial payroll.”

Now that’s something to hang on to in the new year — an inkling of where you might start placing your bets.

A good time to innovate

With adversity comes the chance for the new, the untried, the innovative.

That means many newsrooms (not all) will have to overcome the institutional inertia that has held them back until now, a mindset that has not only not dealt well with change but actively combats it.

To quote The Talking Heads, “Well, how did we get here?” And, to paraphrase many a media observer, how do we get beyond it?

The problem in too many places has been a clinging to the past that’s borderline mental. It’s stunningly myopic to live in the world we do and not notice the changes in media consumption, the ones that are putting in peril that thing you do every day.

It’s true: The road ahead can certainly be informed by what came before. It’s foolish not to consider the lessons we have learned. That is, as long as we’re learning. The real chance to break free of those constraints, though, can only come by realizing that the good old days are both behind us and not as rosy as those rose-colored glasses might lead some to believe.

The good news? There are more jobs and opportunities for journalists than ever before.

That’s if we can get over how it used to be.

As people who have tried to help news organizations see the path ahead, visual journalists need to be visionary in getting over it all: the space we used to have, the perks we used to enjoy, the privilege and entitlement that came from years of generous newshole and technological advances that made our crafts seemingly indispensable as newspapers marched into the future.

And we have to get over the jobs that have gone away. Many of them are never coming back – at least not as they had been constructed in the past.

Journalism isn’t going away, though.

The skills we all have are more valuable than ever. But we may be using those skills at start-ups or smaller news organizations — or for ourselves — instead of for that giant news organization we grew up thinking was the last word in being in a success. It’s not that dream anymore.

What we also must give up on is seeing journalism as tied only to print on paper.

Believe us, that’s a painful thing to say from a couple of people who love print design, its grace and beauty. Photojournalism. Information graphics. Sections that soar, that make you cry, or laugh. How a broadsheet doubletruck canvas can help convey emotion, how the ability to study a still image at that size has immense power. We have seen print work its magic many times in our long careers. We know it has a role in the journalism that comes next.

“Internationally, the integration of print and online has been rather seamless,” said Gayle Grin of The National Post, who is concluding her term as the Society’s president today. “Readers will get their information in any medium it suits them at the moment – whether that be online, newsprint, magazine, radio, or television. Newspapers across the world will continue to break away from the ‘print-first’ thinking and will plan across many medias. In North America, papers made a huge effort to try new things they normally would not have. Design and presentation are going through radical change to reach readers.”

It is our greatest hope that print design will be thriving for a long time – in new, exciting ways that are richly experimental with story forms and structures, even what days the paper is delivered (if it is delivered at all). There are positive signals around the world for growth in newspapering. Those signs are indeed heartening.

Yet we also know that the future includes far more than print, and we know we’re lucky it does because it enriches our tool box as storytellers. We see how multimedia has changed the definition of what it means to be a photojournalist or graphic artist or designer working today. We also see entirely new jobs being created: Programmers and developers are contributing to the field as many news organizations get smart about ease of use and interaction.

And we have see how journalists are partnering with people outside the profession to create new kinds of stories, ones that are told because the authoring function has been so widely distributed. There’s technical skill in the hands of far more people because we’re all used to making content. The community we see being built by this collaboration makes us understand the important role journalism has to play as a gathering spot for ideas about the world around us. Not a new concept at all, really.

We’re confident our colleagues who pioneered the way for visual journalism at newspapers will be willing to step up to innovate for other forms of delivery. Many of the Society’s members already have, of course. We wrote about several triumphs as we looked back at what helped to define 2008.

We also witness it daily with the evolution of our craft, the changes in the teaching we do, the kinds of things we talk about at our annual workshop, and, increasingly, in the type of work we celebrate.

You make the change you deserve. We believe visual journalists deserve amazing roles in the innovation ahead. Here’s to being part of the solution in 2009.

To help: On New Year’s Day we will feature advice, analysis and predictions for what to expect in 2009. Update talked to Mario Garcia, Lee Abrams, Gayle Grin, Richard Curtis, Alan Jacobson, Richard Koci Hernandez, Kris Viesselman, Svetlana Maximchenko, Bonita Burton, Andrew Savikas, David Kordalski, and many others about what’s around the corner. It’s a good jump start to seeing beyond the wreckage and looking for ways to build. So get ready to hit that reset button.

2008: The Year in News Design

Bill Gaspard is the president of the SND Foundation and a deputy managing editor at the Las Vegas Sun.
Matt Mansfield is the Society’s next president and an associate professor for the Medill School of Journalism.