Sunday, August 31, 2008

Creeping synergy

I recently received a notice from a woman who delivered the Plain Dealer to our mailbox every morning.  She advised us that she had been summarily dismissed by the PD  because the Beacon Journal, its one-time drop-dead  rival, would now deliver it in certain  precincts in the county.  A few days later I got a letter from the BJ announcing a price increase for my home delivery, which seemed a strange decision  for a paper trying to increase circulation during hard economic times.  And now the staffs at both the PD and BJ are facing tough decisions on whether to accept  buyouts. The BJ, alone, is cutting 20 jobs from its news room , I'm told, and is offering pay up to one year's salary and no medical insurance to persons 55 and older.

The latest round of shrinkage would hit the people with the most instititutional memory the hardest.  The mood is funereal these days.   "We just clench our fists and grind our teeth," one reporter told me.  The bosses say they have no choice with a budget that is nothing more than a Hobson's choice.   People with families must choose between accepting a meaningless buyout package or face layoffs later.  What to do when somebody's turned off all the lights?  

The front office is quick to remind the  critics that their problems are industry-wide, and so they are.  Circulating internally at the BJ is dire piece from the Poynter Institute, the respected journalism education center,  that reads like an obituary.  It quotes a startling prediction  by Vin Crosbie, an industry consultant:  "More than half of the 1,439 daily newspapers in the U.S." says Crosbie, " won't exist in print, e-paper, or Web formats by the end of the next decade.  They will go out of business."  There's a lot more downbeat stuff from Crosbie, but you get the point.  Small wonder that some of the BJ staffers are gravely pondering who will make the cut.

For those of us who have followed the media battlefield reports for a long time, none of this seems overblown.  Cable TV, bloggers, electronic access to everything from home-fried recipes to 5-star resorts - all have taken their toll of once-healthy newspapers. But some of the plunge was hastened by dumb decisions by the stubborn people who claimed prescience in reviving the patient.   

Editors and their consultants who should have known better 20 years ago opted for glittering graphics, gallery-size color photos and minimal text (We used to call it news) and when circulation continued to fall despite the hip look of the front page,  the deciders force-fed even more of the same.  The new era of graphics-inspired encapsulated newspapers didn't produce a miracle then, and it's producing even less today. The young people it was supposed to attract didn't bother.  And the older core readers, largely unimpressed with their hometown paper, began drifting away along with editors and publishers who stayed long enough for coffee and a taxi ride to Cleveland Hopkins to  higher corporate ground  - or oblivion.    

Papers are now past the point of no return with few battle ribbons for those who clung to their ways to brake the fall. I have no idea what will happen to the PD and BJ in the near future. But the cross pollination of delivery, as well as the exchange of bylined stories beween the papers, is clear evidence of  a creeping synergy that will doubtless increase in other ways.  One possibility:  the PD  will begin  printing the BJ at its modern West Side plant and ship it south to distribution points in the Akron circulation area.  Only a guess, mind you. 
But what is the media today if nothing more than  organized guesswork?  

1 comment:

chien lunatique said...

Ah the magic of the of the free market. Destroy lives for the blood sucking few. Where is Karl when we need him?