Less Is Not More

Why do newspapers alienate their most loyal readers?

When my son’s first college roommate turned out to be from Chicago, I was delighted. His family had long subscribed to the Chicago Tribune, where I worked. I thought it gave us an immediate connection. Less than two months later, they unsubscribed. This was shortly after a drastic redesign at the paper in September 2008. The roommate’s family said there was nothing in the Tribune to read anymore.

That wasn’t quite true. There was still plenty of information in the paper. But there were fewer stories, produced by fewer reporters. The stories were relentlessly local and, increasingly, came in the form of charts, graphs, maps, statistics, large fonts, and large photos—a sort of newspaper-Internet-TV amalgam that seemed more like something to be absorbed than read. For the roommate’s family—professional people who wanted sophisticated stories that included the world beyond Chicago—it wasn’t enough.

I understood. During the calamitous year of 2008—as many of us at the Tribune dutifully learned to create “dispatches” at Twitter-esque lengths, and localize national stories through pretzel-like contortions—I increasingly suspected that this approach wasn’t going to save newspapers in particular, or journalism in general. Nor would the sweeping reductions in the work force.

Here in 2010, I am even more convinced of that. I have no idea what the business plan for newspapers should be or how to monetize the Web. What I do know is that tailoring newspapers to the interests of people who never read them is futile. The magic formula, whatever it is, is not the lowest common denominator. That will be true no matter how simple and shiny and service-oriented we make them.

So why do the dailies continue to alienate the loyal readers that they still have? The figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the six months that ended September 2009 make the case that, for readers, less is not more. Some of the biggest weekday losers—the Los Angeles Times (-11.05 percent), the San Francisco Chronicle (-25.8 percent), the Newark Star-Ledger, (-22.22 percent), The Boston Globe (-18.48 percent), and The Dallas Morning News (-22.16 percent) to name a few—are among those who have made some of the biggest contributions to the pool of laid off, fired, or bought out journalists, some 30,000 since the start of 2008. People who buy newspapers are people who want more context, more information, more analysis—not less. So I am convinced that part of these losses stems from once-loyal subscribers who cut loose from dailies with diminished firepower and ambitions.

Less is less. It has been sobering for me to see how much my former newspaper has changed in the past year. It’s now a tabloid for street sales and a broadsheet for home delivery, and Chicago friends complain that they can zip through the tabloid version in minutes, and the broadsheet doesn’t require much more. Some 30 million people still pay for daily newspapers. Many of these readers are older, but they also tend to be affluent and loyal—the kind of people advertisers like to reach. And they aren’t afraid to take their business elsewhere if they’re not happy.

Daily ink-on-paper news may not last forever, but while we’ve still got it, we might as well leverage it to keep the business afloat until we figure out what comes next. We can no longer do that by offering something for everyone. Growth appears to go to those who exploit niches.

So here’s a niche: Instead of dumbing down the news, why not consider selectively smartening it up? This would involve hard choices, as we can’t do everything. But as newspapers cut staff and newsholes, and as they barrel down-market, they leave opportunities for people offering news expertise in areas like politics, sports, foreign affairs.

That includes Texas, where the nonprofit, online Texas Tribune, which made its debut in November, is targeting voids in politics and policy coverage left by the contractions of the big Texas dailies.

It includes San Francisco, where the Chronicle recently lost the most daily circulation in the nation. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recently launched Bay Area editions featuring San Francisco-oriented news.

And it includes Chicago, where both local papers slashed staff and content, and where, to take advantage of the resulting void, The New York Times partnered with the Chicago News Cooperative, a young nonprofit run by the Tribune’s former managing editor, James O’Shea. The cooperative provides the Times with local coverage two days a week focused on city and state politics, policy, and culture. The Journal is considering similar metro coverage in Chicago as well as Los Angeles.

No matter the platform, what all these ventures have in common is that they’re betting on smart news that gives more to the people who want it, need it, and are willing to pay for it. It’s certainly not clear that smartening up the news will work. But it’s clear that dumbing it down will not.

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Lisa Anderson is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was the the New York bureau chief and a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune until December 2008.