The Quiet Death of Newspapers and The Buffalo News

In college, I spent a semester interning at a history museum in Southwest Ohio. Everyday, I got to perform the menial task of digitizing 19th century and early 20th century town directories, which is the equivalent of hand-typing a phone book into a word processor. Riveting stuff. When you’re that bored, you start playing games with the stuff you have in front of your face; you know, first I looked up my own name in the directories, then names of family members, then celebrities (there was a man named Tyler Ennis from Southern Ohio who volunteered in the Civil War, was wounded and captured at Chickamauga and died of dysentery in a Confederate prison, which is sort of a parable for the Sabres 2011-12 season). After that, it’s just monotony; just trying to get through the damn thing and get it over with.

When you look at thousands of pages of these things — when you drift into the ocean of Harwick’s General Store and 700 people named “Smith” and the abundance of people at the turn of the last century whose name had something to do with “Abner” — you also notice some interesting patterns. If I took anything away from my internship and from looking at those godforsaken directories so much, it was that things change in America. Fast. And you can tell as much just by looking at the phone book.

So it was no surprise when right around the turn of the century, a staple of early American industriousness began to disappear from the directories in favor of something else. It was the horse-and-buggy industry. If you ever go to the library, go look at an old directory for five minutes. You couldn’t shake a stick in the early 1900s without hitting a business that had something to do with horse-and-buggy. Horse dealers, buggy repair, feed stations, you name it. Then cars happened and slowly, but surely, the horse-and-buggy business faded away.

It never died, exactly, but it faded down to an obscure and, in some ways, novel concept. You can still drive out into the country and go for a horseback ride. You can still get a horse-drawn carriage ride through many major American cities. But nobody makes their daily commute on the back of ole’ Wilbur. Nobody sees horses as the very best way to accomplish getting around.

Throughout the entirety of our recent history, newspapers have been the best way to spread news. Like horse-and-buggy, they weren’t necessarily American inventions, but benefited from American ambition. Here, every town had a local rag. Even places that couldn’t even be considered towns sometimes had their own paper. These papers were the eyes and ears of the community in a time when people did not have their own eyes and ears everywhere. They were also often the war dogs of the political parties; a vehicle for corruption and yellow journalism. Papers have been many things for many centuries. And they always showed up in the phone book.

But much like cars did to horses — much in the way that they became a better, more efficient, faster way to travel — so to has the internet begun to do this to the daily newspaper: better, more efficient, faster. 

And so, in 2012, we are beginning to see the first terminal signs of the death of newspapers as we know them. It’s a cancer that has plagued the newspaper industry for almost fifteen years — something almost everyone could see coming, likely in the way that equestrians could foretell their own doom when they watched Henry Ford put up his first mass-production automobile factory. Somewhere in some dungeon in the 1980s, some newspaper man, likely wearing a fedora with the word “PRESS” etched in the side, quietly watched as Al Gore connected a series of knobs and tubes and uttered, “This will be the end of us.”

But are all newspapers dying, is all *news* dying? Is it something you’ll have to drive out into the hills and pay $200 an hour to see, will it become a relic of times forgotten in some tiny museum somewhere? Yes. And No. And Maybe.

Newspapers are dying, but media is living a healthy, bloated life. For those news outlets that survive the genocide of the current age of technology, they will probably not only live, but thrive. This could be a good thing or a disastrous one for The Buffalo News which teeters year-to-year on the brink of all out disaster while seemingly doing just enough to make good on their promises. 

One thing is for sure: The daily print circulation of The Buffalo News is decreasing. Down 8,000 daily subscribers from 2011 to 2012, TBN sportswriter Mike Harrington mentioned to me on Twitter that he believed this drop was due to the lack of a Sabres playoff run. But these numbers were taken from March of 2011 to March of 2012; before the Sabres playoff run was a certainty or failure in either year.

Moreover, the 2012 number — a number that was audited and confirmed by the Audit Bureau of Circulation — is down nearly 25,000 subscribers from 2008 when Berkshire Hathaway, the Warren Buffet led investment company which owns The Buffalo News conducted its own internal circulation study.

You can slice the words in whatever way you need: the clearest portrait on this wall is the one that shows print media dying in its current form. But it’s not dying entirely. It’s just shifting shape.

The Buffalo News will probably survive — thrive, even, as it readjusts what it is and likely becomes more driven by online content and mobile media. Within the next two decades, though, you can expect a drastic reduction in the physical print editions of The Buffalo News, and they won’t be alone.

In fact, TBN is, by most measures, dying at a much slower pace than many of their counterparts. The Toledo Blade for example, is losing about 20,000 daily subscribers per year over year, and at this rate won’t exist by 2015. As was very prominent in the news last week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune is phasing out daily editions, and though some reporters have written this off as bad management and bad ownership, papers from virtually parent company have been and continue to scale back in a variety of ways, sometimes just to keep up the appearance of a successful publication which is actually badly ailing. 

The decline even seems to have a pattern: Dailies will likely reduce themselves to thrice weekly publications, then Sunday only print editions, before removing their print editions entirely. 

For the folks who work at The Buffalo News, the paper and its parent company have been able to finagle enough cutbacks to offset a great deal of the revenue losses, and so its important to remember two things:

1) While they have been able to declare net income year over year, the money is coming from a much smaller pool. Less money is being made, and less money is being spent. That really isn’t a sign of growth or a confidence in the current model.

2) This is nevertheless probably a good thing. While the money is much smaller potatoes than say, in 1997, this method of sustaining will likely get them through the toughest stages of the newspaper genocide, into a place where they can become a viable online-oriented entity, either through a pay wall or by eventually figuring out how to effectively advertise on the internet (which newspapers have not yet done). 

What’s more, the newspaper industry does have a superhero like champion in mega-billionaire Warren Buffet, whose recent investment in dozens of small community papers recognizes both a shift in the way news is delivered and a renewed confidence in the media’s ability to transform itself. Buffet, who two years ago declared that the major, top heavy papers of the industries would continue to suffer irreversible losses has had a lifetime long love for newspapers, and has also long felt that posting content online for newspapers — pay wall or not — was an egregious error in their business model. 

I don’t know that I necessarily believe that, mostly because people have been reconditioned to seek out their news on the fastest and most convenient source (the internet) and so if newspapers simply refused to play along, other places would take over and probably conduct themselves even more recklessly. But Buffet also had a second point the made sense with his recent acquisitions and that is: the safest news is local.
No one is covering Sally’s junior varsity volleyball game in Tonawanda at The Buffalo News.

There is no “Junior Varsity Volleyball Blog” that can become the contentious paper of record on all the JV Volleyball in the area. But the Tonawanda News just might care — just might run something like that. And while their circulation ceiling is much lower and their spread of influence much smaller, there will be a few thousand people who will always have a thirst for community news that they can’t get anywhere else, which will keep those kinds of papers afloat. The costs of printing and the low return on physical subscriptions may force them to go online, but they will generate a sustainable amount of revenue almost always.

What does this leave for the big regional papers? Well, for places like The Toledo Blade, where the free fall is entering its last stages, it may be too late from which to recover, even to salvage an online presence. There will be mid-sized and major cities in this country for the next fifteen to twenty years who lose their papers of record to bankruptcy, and witness a new online entity take their place. Many of the same names, same reporters, same editors will take part, because its not the quality of their work that necessarily is the problem (though in some places, it plays a part). For places like The Buffalo News, it means a change both in the method of distribution, but also probably a change in the method of content.

People will look to places who pay their writers and reporters for more analysis, more well-written content that focuses on the story outside of the reporting. News will become the tic-tac, and good writing will become the meal. 

It’s difficult for many people inside the newspaper bubble to understand how a giant pay wall and an obstructive online entity can work for The New York Times, and virtually no where else. The reason, really, is because the writing in The New York Times is better than just about anywhere else in any newspaper in the country, pound-for-pound. Sure, there are newspaper people who write for other publications that have talent, but when you weigh the sum total of the talent and quality of any of those papers against that of The New York Times, where analysis, long-form, narrative, and yes, even storytelling of all things, are still valued, we understand that many people subscribe there because of the quality of the product and because they can’t find it in such abundance many other places. 

So if you’re interested in media and how its delivered to you, you’re in for an exciting time. If you’re hoping to see all of the columnists and reporters go away, get what they deserve, etc etc etc, you’re probably in for disappointment. The new media will be as competitive, two-faced and frustratingly full of themselves as the old media. Columnists will remain their own biggest fans. The product will change a little bit, but the egos are just changing offices. 

The Buffalo News holds a contentious place in my heart. I much prefer community newspapers. I much prefer the people who work at them. I much enjoy the prospect that in the next two decades, community newspapers will likely be considered the only successful newspapers left in the industry. But I don’t hate The Buffalo News, and admire some of what it does. I understand and empathize with the degree of difficulty inherent in their jobs sometimes. 

And they’re not going away, which, like it or not, is almost absolutely a good thing. Open a phone book in twenty years. The Buffalo News will still be there. It might just be listed in a different category.

Of course, no one uses phone books anymore. That stuff is all on the internet.

This Buffalo Wins piece is brought to you by Gino’s Pizza.


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