Newspapers’ survival, in any format, is key to effective crisis management

David Rubin more than ably steered the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University through 18 of the most turbulent years in journalism, from 1990 — when the Internet’s effect on newspapers was only hinted at — to 2008, when the trend lines descended to the bleak zone.

During his tenure as dean, he watched print majors decline, superseded by television, web, graphics and PR, and effectively modified degree requirements accordingly.

He still teaches as an emeritus professor and can be confident that he and his stellar faculty — I am not a graduate, but did hire some very capable interns from Newhouse — prepared their undergrad and graduate students for that changing world. So his observations over the weekend on the demise of newspapers bears re-reading.

For crisis managers, the weak ad revenues and lower circulations of the nation’s larger newspapers must be major concerns. Newspapers are still where journalists tell in-depth stories, where details and facts matter, where both sides of a controversy receive more than eight seconds at 5, 6 and 11.

Crisis managers and public affairs professionals understand that if newspapers go away, the mob rule of random blogs, videos, Facebook posts and Twitter exclamations will fill the void with very little hope of clarity and factual treatment. Journalists have rules, enforced by their editors. Internet-based ranters make up their rules as they write.

Our clients lose.

Rubin’s view ran in the Syracuse Post-Standard, which recently chose to cut back its print edition to only three days a week. He has a long relationship with the Newhouse-owned newspaper, one of the first to embrace the web when other newspaper publishers scoffed at its potential. Now the P-S is moving in the direction of other Newhouse papers in New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama. The efficacy of the choice remains to be seen. Canary in a coal mine, or soaring eagle?

In terms of information delivery — faster, longer, accompanied by sharp photos, audio and video — digital and its various formats should accommodate more customers than a print-only product. What’s undecided is whether advertising dollars will flow from print to web. Rubin noted that newspaper ad revenue fell from $47 billion to $21 billion between 2005 and 2011.

What screams the need for a new model is that online newspaper ad revenue only rose to $3.2 billion from $2.6 billion in the same time period. Clearly, newspaper advertisers went elsewhere — hotter web sites, cable, outdoor, TV and radio.

And, will readers pay to receive what has been free digital access and content? That’s clearly the play by Newhouse — the company, not the school.

A client, The Buffalo News, announced yesterday that Oct. 1 it would begin charging non-print customers a nominal weekly fee — $2.77 or $2.49 — for digital-only access. Subscribers continue to have access to web, tablet and phone-based digital content for no additional charge.

Newspapers will find their new niche, like they did, as Rubin recounted, when radio came along, and television emerged. But this is already a painful transition and its ultimate outcome is far from clear. Weakened and shrunken newspaper news-gathering staffs could merge with radio or TV, or fragment entirely. Crisis managers must prepare.

Rubin’s concluding comments resonate:

I am confident the news business will figure this out, just as radio did. Radio discovered the “format” concept and became a profitable niche medium.

However, the newspaper solution might not look anything like the current newspaper website. Newsgathering could fracture into separate sites that specialize in sports, politics, culture, education and so on. The more trusted brands could become the journalists, not their employers. Or, publishers could decide a pay wall is necessary, a direction taken by The New York Times, among others.

To survive, newspapers will need our help. Journalism is not just any business. This one is protected by the Constitution. If professional journalists don’t survive in large numbers, someone will have to explain to me how democratic self-government is supposed to work. I have no model for that.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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