323: Newspaper crisis is sure sign that communities already are moving

plashed across the front page of “my” newspaper — the 177-year-old Detroit Free Press — is news I hoped to never read: “Free Press unveils historic changes.” The vast network of daily home-delivered newspapers that helped to define southeast Michigan as a community will end soon.
    In its place? Well, the announcement was confusing on many levels. Basically, sometime in the spring, the newspaper will cut back to delivering only on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. A slim version of the daily newspaper still will be printed each day, but this new newspaper-lite will be distributed only to coin-operated boxes and stores. The big announcement also included a confusing plan to sell some online content — not likely to be much of a success at a time when newspaper online revenues are declining.
    Detroit newspaper executives talked bravely about really trying hard now (after more than a decade of trying) to suddenly produce a big, financially viable hit of a Web site. Unfortunately, the bar for measuring “big, financially viable hits” online has been rising at an almost insurmountable rate. For example, this week an industry-wide report by ContentNext, a top media-analysis firm, concludes that only the New York Times and Wall Street Journal online hubs have a shot at surviving. Using the ContentNext analysis, the readership numbers newspaper Web sites need to survive are far, far beyond what the Detroit newspapers have generated so far.
    This same plan will be adopted by the smaller, afternoon Detroit News, Detroit’s other historic newspaper. For now, Gannett has chosen not to force a merger of the two newspapers. Why? Well, executives fear an even bigger loss in readership if they drop one entire product or suddenly try to create a new merged product.

    I think the truth is they simply don’t have time to figure out what a merger would look like with all of its complex corporate changes. There’s simply no time left for slow-and-thoughtful transformation. The newspapers have been trying that for more than a decade and nothing has worked.
It’s now a do-or-die crisis.
    Even the newspaper executives admitted it’s a desperate gamble to prop up the roof in the midst of an implosion. In fact, throughout the extensive coverage of the looming changes, there are far too many “we’ll-figure-it-out-by-spring” promises. Of course, this comes at a time when newspapers continue to throw employees out the window by the hundreds. This week, no more Detroit newsroom employees are leaving, but the layoff waves keep crashing on the shore at a furious pace. More journalists will have to go eventually.
    The whole announcement has the tone of fend-off-the-wolves bravado. Essentially, it’s a roll of the dice by executives hoping that top corporate bosses and leading investors will be willing to watch the last-ditch action for a few more months. Of course, everyone knows that, lurking in the background are enormous corporate debts and other harsh financial realities that could torpedo even this bold gamble by spring. All one has to do is read the media-business projections and the new plan’s numbers simply don’t add up.
    All of us should be concerned. For example, without a major statewide newspaper in Michigan, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick very likely would be celebrating the holidays in the mayor’s mansion, probably passing around more pots of public money to his friends — instead of sulking behind jailhouse bars, where he will stay into the New Year. And the campaign to get at least some help for the ailing auto industry was orchestrated in part with newspaper clout. If the Big Three survive, they owe newspapers a big debt.

    There’s not a lot we can do about this situation, to be honest. The hard financial realities of the print news industry are just too weighty for any one reader — or group of readers — to prevent what’s about to happen. Younger Americans simply don’t want print news media anymore. The data is piling up everywhere you look.
    Just last week, I was pleased to spend an hour over coffee with a couple of very bright, 30-something, newly hired “community organizers” just about to start crisscrossing part of southeast Michigan for a non-profit group. They stopped by to talk with me, because of my background as an authority on communities in this area. These two women are going to do some great work, I can tell, so I was happy to let them pick my brain at Starbucks. But my first question to them was: Where do you get your news about the communities where you’ll be working? Neither one subscribes to a newspaper or has any real interest in magazines. They get their information online, combined with National Public Radio and a few cable TV news shows they watch.
    Frankly, a lot of top marketing gurus don’t think that even the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will survive long, because their business models still are too tightly limited by the narrow rectangle of a newsprint page.
    Recently, marketing sage Seth Godin wrote his own epitaph for the Times. He wrote that individual Times journalists are “smart, driven, honest and on a mission to do great work.” But this Titanic of a concept — the local print newspaper — is too big and slow to turn away from the iceberg dead ahead. “The people didn’t fail the system,” Seth wrote, “the system failed them.”
    People still want information. They still want community, he argued. The problem is that newspaper executives are only “great at yesterday’s business.”

    What can we do?
    We can’t save print newspapers and we likely can’t save the online newspapers executives are trying to build at the moment.
    What we can do is think about what this means to our “sense of community.” What are our real communities?
    Pay attention to the connections and networks and groups and sources of information that are important to us on a daily basis. And, I cannot say this strongly enough: Where is hope? The answer is three words: With each other.
    This isn’t just me talking to you today. Top media analysts already are talking about a huge “sorting out” of media in 2009. We’ve gorged on media, especially in 2008, eagerly diving into the deep end of all kinds of social-networking Web sites and other online goodies. (How many of us have signed up for a social-networking site in 2008 that we’ve never visited again? Yup, that’s me. You, too?)
    Advertising Age Magazine published this line just yesterday: “In 2009, less may well become the new more.”
    In 2009, pushed on all sides by harsh economic realities, Americans will be paring back their lives in dramatic ways. We’re going to start rethinking what we really need each day, each week, each month. We’re going to be moving around the country, perhaps in search of work, cheaper housing or perhaps even “moving back home” to get closer to family and old friends who can help us.

    Many of our ReadTheSpirit readers are involved in community leadership and media at some level. We’ve got a whole lot of preachers, teachers, small-group leaders, activists, community volunteers, writers, filmmakers, photographers, bloggers and other “gatekeepers of community” in our core readership.
    We share a common interest in 2009. How shall we proceed?
    One word: Together.
    If you’re developing a new media project in 2009 — and lots of our readers are — the goals we share are:
    Clearly define your focus. (We do many, many things at ReadTheSpirit, but our focus can be summed up in two words: spiritual connection.)
    Second, pour your passion into helping your community of readers. (Writer Phyllis Tickle urged us to do this as we founded ReadTheSpirit a year ago and it’s now more essential than ever. One example at ReadTheSpirit is that we don’t bother panning bad stuff — we’re always focused on finding the small handful of writers and filmmakers we can passionately recommend in a helpful way to our community of readers.)
    And, third, try to become a hub that’s an indispensable part of your community’s daily life. (Sad to say, in our particular field of media, newspaper religion writers are an endangered species and even Publishers Weekly has bailed out of covering this niche of spiritual media in a full-time way. ReadTheSpirit is becoming one of “The Last (Persons) Standing” in this vital area.)
    Please, share with us your thoughts about this rapidly changing moment in our culture and community as Americans.
    Share some of your wisdom about what you think we should be doing in 2009.
    We’re in this together.
    Together. Thank God for that.

    We’ve been writing about these themes for more than a year. Click Here to go back and read our founding article, No. 001.
    This autumn, we took a look at how religious leaders can talk to people about stewardship in such tough financial times.
    From the first hour that ReadTheSpirit went “live” online, we have posted our own “10 Principles.

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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