Thoughts on Our 30th Anniversary

Posted In: Politics, Opinion, Culture, Biography, News, Local,   From Issue 680   By: Robert E Martin

09th November, 2009     0

Irony abounds.  A week before preparing this first of several anniversary editions that you presently hold in your hand, the buzz was out – Mid-Michigan’s three largest daily publications were cutting their frequency down to three times per week.

Whether the dailies are victims of the mass economic meltdown that affect commercial sectors worldwide, or similar to the Big Three in the sense they appeared ‘too big to fail’, or displaced by the advent of online news delivery, predicated upon theories asserting that ‘print is dead’ - has been discussed by pundits across the spectrum from the top of national news desks to the dusty corridors of local cable rooms.

As usual, there is truth and nonsense embedded in each of these arguments.  

But for the purposes of this discourse and special Celebratory Anniversary Edition, the following email is representative in terms of chorus of those received:

Mr. Martin;

What’s your take on the Saginaw News going downhill? Is the Review Mag going to follow suit? Is print media dead? You need to do a story in your paper about this.

Obviously, while one side of my attention wishes to be popping the cork and celebrating 30 years of publishing history, as is often the case in life – larger phenomena affecting the fundamentals of my industry necessitate immediate attention.

When the first issue of The Bay Area Review (we shortened it to ‘Review in the mid-80s) rolled off the press the vision – to a large degree – was centered around providing coverage and focusing on topical arenas not covered or addressed by the dailies. What this boiled down to in one word was ‘depth’ – regardless of whether the subject was an interview, an investigative piece, or assembling a massive events calendar (which believe it or not, none of the dailies provided back in 1979).

Over the years, as the tone and veracity of our publication took root, the dailies would often try to assimilate or ‘imitate’ many of our features – but regardless of your preferred media for receiving the news; one truth holds true: there are innovators and there are imitators.  

People will support a product that is unique, which is something this 30th Anniversary edition attests to.

And with the explosion of online news delivery & blogging of all variety (and often dubious reliability) the opportunity for carving a unique niche for one’s voice has multiplied as quickly as the odds have diminished for that voice actually being heard when it gets ‘lost in the crowd’, online, so to speak.

The truth is that national news – the AP variety – is available at your fingertips from a multiplicity of sources; but quality state, regional, and local reporting of any depth and substance is hard to find because research & investigation is time-consuming and costly.  

And the bottom line is that if people want in-depth reporting – as with anything of value in life – it will come with a price.  I predict all the major dailies will soon be shifting their subscription costs online and the era of ‘free online news delivery’ will quickly come to an end, unless online advertising revenue can cover the gap, which again with so much competition for attention, is a tricky course to navigate.

As for the future of The Review, we also will continue and expand our energies into the many opportunities afforded by the Internet and Online News delivery.  We have already re-designed our site and have many new interactive features, an expansive and cohesive events calendar, and many surprises in store for the months ahead.

Will we abandon print?  Not in a million years.

In reality, studies show that locally, print is still the most viable and effective medium for spending advertising dollars.  In the case of The Review, we have 40,000 print readers each month with less than a one percent return rate.  Added to our 500 unique page views online per day, that represents concentrated coverage throughout 4 major counties. Indeed, a majority of our advertisers are on long-term contracts precisely because they find us to be such an effective marketing forum; and in reality, there is far less market fragmentation than one encounters when dealing with broadcast.

As for online marketing, the dirty little secret lurking there is the amount of ‘click-fraud’ that goes on, given there is an estimated billion dollars a year that is paid out on internet advertising that is generated by ‘click-bot’ programs, which invade computers and click on banner ads to generate false data.

The biggest ‘threat’ to print centers, in my estimation, upon not correcting the myths and falsehoods being circulated about it.

As for the situation with The Saginaw News and other dailies, I’ve asked former award-winning Saginaw News reporter Mike Thompson to weigh in on that topic with his own thoughts.

The Demise of the Daily Print Newspaper

By Mike Thompson
This is sort of a Catch-22. The shift to a 3-day-per-week print edition at The Saginaw News, Bay City Times, Flint Journal and elsewhere is supposed to partly reflect a big drop in readership. But then why, if there is this decline in reader interest, does everyone keep asking me about the 3-day-per-week switchover?

And why, given my previous career at The Saginaw News, cannot I come up with a clear and spot-on answer? I’m sort of confused. It’s like some people are saying, “We aren’t always interested in the daily print paper, but we still want one.”   

The most common explanation for the decline of print newspapers is that the main problem isn’t a lack of readers, but rather a decline in advertisers, in the midst of a horrible current economy and the ascent of the online era.

There is no real quarreling with this outlook, but it seems there is more to it.One outlook is that as people have learned how to go online through the years, especially young people and advertising managers, they perceive in isolation that everyone else is online, too.

However, the Pew Research Center reported early this year that 55 percent of 70-year-olds are NOT online, and that 38 percent of 60-year-olds are NOT online, and that even a full 17 percent of 40-year-olds are NOT online.

Imagine how these folks feel when they are told, either by a newspaper or during local TV news, to “simply go online” for further information. Recently there was a Channel 12 news report about a local nonprofit group, and the anchor closed by telling viewers to “simply go online” for the phone number, rather than just giving viewers the danged phone number.

Also imagine how someone feels if they indeed do know how to go online, but can no longer afford Internet fees because they lost their job in the bad economy!

Maybe everyone supposedly goes online in an upscale university center such as Ann Arbor, where they are shutting down the entire print paper. But even in Ann Arbor, I don’t see it - and in places such as Saginaw and Bay City, definitely not. I know a whole lot of people who don’t go online, and my 53-year-old self still isn’t very good at it.

Regardless, print newspapers have no control over this perceived rush to the Internet, even though the rush may be less than portrayed. This is what most advertisers perceive, and so perception becomes reality. Another Catch-22.

All I can say to advertisers is that a print spot in The Saginaw News or The Bay City Times (and definitely yes, in Review Magazine) still can be a quite a better deal than they might imagine, in spite of all the proclamations that newspapers and magazines are dead.

Lack of Interest in Local News
Even back during my start in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed that newspapers were destined to fall on hard times. The thought back then was that television gradually would take over, which now the Internet is also affecting.

My intuition back then wasn’t entirely related to technology. My observation was that people were taking less interest in their local civic affairs, and thus less interest in their local newspapers. There was sort of a last surge of interest in Saginaw during the early and middle 1980s, when the City Council and the school board became more fully integrated for the first time, but this soon died out. Even in Bay City, which has more than its share of one-of-a-kind local stories, the same was happening.

Saginaw’s voter turnout in local-only elections (those in the odd-numbered years) was around 33 percent after World War II and all the way into the 1980s. That was far from good, but for the past two decades, turnout has dropped farther, to an abysmal 20 percent. Attention readers: Can you even name the people who sit on your local city or township governing board, or on your school board?

This trend gained my personal attention in 1982, when I switched from sports writing to local news. Friends and acquaintances started asking if I had quit working for the paper; they no longer were seeing my byline because I now was on those apparently obscure “metro” pages. This went on not just for months, but for years.   

The Saginaw News started the daily Ballot Box during the 1980s. Sometimes the Ballot Box question would go with one of my articles about the City Council or the Board of Education, or maybe the United Way fund drive or the next step in welfare reform. The next day, there would be only about a dozen call-ins.

Talk about being made to feel humble!

I was a team member, sometimes captain, for a good number of weeklong special projects, on topics ranging from housing blight to race relations. Few gained genuine attention.

One huge exception came in August 2004, with the City Council’s mysterious 5-4 midnight vote to fire Deborah Kimble as city manager. This evolved into a special project of its own, with all of the emerging twists and turns. People suddenly came out of the woodwork, not just in the Ballot Box but also in pedestrian “water cooler” chitchat. This really was puzzling to me. What was so different about this story, compared to the others? Did this mean that I had been pressing the wrong buttons in all of my other reports; both in the stories I selected and in the way they were written?

Maybe, just maybe, the Deborah Kimble scenario indicates that there remains an appetite for local news (and therefore local newspapers). Consider Bay City just this past few months, where a 93-year-old man froze to death in his home, and then a 15-year-old boy died after he absorbed a Taser from the police.

These two stories would certainly seem to make someone want to grab a newspaper, Bay Cityan or otherwise.

On the other hand, must local happenings be “off the charts” nowadays before people pay attention?

Will Three Days Devolve to Zero Days?

With the switch to 3-days-per-week for local print newspapers a pair of other questions arise.

First, does this simply portend zero-days-per-week, such as in Ann Arbor? My tentative answer would be, not in the near future. Those Sunday newspaper ad inserts don’t bring in as much revenue as you might think, but they still exist and they can’t really be transformed onto the Internet and achieve near the market penetration.

The second question is, did this have to happen? Did newspaper managers fall upon their own swords, or are we looking at factors beyond their control?

At The Saginaw News, or in any newsroom or in virtually any workplace, the rank-and-file will imagine that they could have done a better job of managing. Myself, and some of my reporting peers, felt that hard news was giving way to soft news, or fluff. Might this be true? Well, consider that nearly half of the adults in this region didn’t even vote in the presidential election last November. Maybe fluff sells better than hard news. Or, maybe there are a lot of folks who don’t really care a whole lot about hard news OR soft news; just the funnies or the television booklet. (Or if you judge by TV, cops and weather, fires and weather, car crashes and weather, court arraignments and weather, sports and weather, weather and weather...)

Go to your main library, where The Bay City Times and The Saginaw News are captured on microfilm in month-by-month boxes. Pick a spool from the 1950s or 1960s. First, it’s a lot of fun. But while you’re at it, check out all of the advertisements for the local retailers. A Thursday paper then contained as many as 64 pages, bigger than today’s Sunday paper. Many of those enterprises have vanished. So has the ad revenue.

Would Art Dore buy The Bay City Times if it were for sale, or would Dr. Sam Shaheen buy The Saginaw News?

The arrival of this combined online and short-attention span era should not mean that every report needs to be squeezed into 12 paragraphs or fewer. A good number of people still desire in-depth reporting that they won’t find on radio or television.

My theory always has been that some readers just want short articles, but that once a story becomes medium length, the reporter might as well go whole hog with all of the details. If someone will read 20 paragraphs, I figure they’ll read 30 or even 50, if the added information is pertinent and organized. The most frustrating articles can be those medium articles that sort of seem to go in-depth, but then don’t really take you there.

A third suggestion is that newspapers should become far more open, or in today’s lingo “transparent,” regarding their finances. Readers are constantly told that newspapers are facing tougher times, but there are scant few statistics.

How much profit was the newspaper earning in the old days? Has the newspaper actually been losing money lately, or is it just a case of smaller profits than in the past? How much money will the newspaper save by withholding print editions on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays?

Newspapers still serve as watchdogs on local government and schools, although maybe not as intensely as in the past. Reporters will ask how much money is in the total budget, how much money goes to various departments, how much money the top executives are earning, and what types of contracts the labor unions are receiving. This is all based on the public’s right to know, bolstered by the Freedom Of Information Act.

Yet if a reader asked these questions of their local newspaper, the response would be in so many words, “No comment. We’re not the government, we’re a private business, people don’t pay taxes to us.”

Maybe so, but citizens depend on their newspapers and they don’t have much choice. Citizens actually have more control over their local government than over their local newspaper.



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