Tag Archives: Newspaper industry

NY Times vs. USA Today: Who’s #1?

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” once observed that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He was referring to the eternal cycle of American culture, a cycle that briefly lifts anonymous citizens to fame and fortune and then destroys them, only to move on to its next hero / victim.

Many other icons have observed this same tendency. Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, for instance, once remarked that all Americans “will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” And in the business world, entrepreneurs like Groupon founder Andrew Mason can plunge from the pinnacle of success to the unemployment line in the blink of an eye.

But there are times when fading business icons are able to turn the tables on their successors and reassume positions of leadership, thereby launching the very types of “second acts” that Fitzgerald deemed impossible. Indeed, there are times when their successors actually enable them to do so by failing to rejuvenate themselves.

All The News That’s Fit To Print

The most recent newspaper circulation data, for instance, revealed that the venerable New York Times has supplanted the USA Today as the #1 general interest newspaper in the United States. Although the Times still trails the business focused Wall Street Journal in total circulation, it is the only publication among the Big Three to cover “all the news that’s fit to print” on a seven-day-a-week production schedule.

The Times, of course, has been publishing newspapers since 1851, and has been awarded more Pulitzer Prizes for journalism than any other news organization. But as recently as two years ago, its very existence appeared to be threatened by the emergence of various internet based rivals.

That’s when its publisher “bet the business” on the introduction of a pay wall that covered most of its internet content, gambling that any gain in online subscription revenue would more than offset the loss of advertising revenue from declines in non-subscriber web traffic. Its bold leap into web based e-commerce succeeded; it has returned the Times to its traditional position of industry leader.

But what of its largest general news competitor, the USA Today?

America’s Newspaper

Former Gannett chairman Al Neuharth launched the USA Today in 1982, at a time when no general interest newspaper was pursuing a national circulation strategy. The commercial internet did not exist at that time; thus, it was considered impossible for any newspaper to deliver paper based products on a daily basis across the nation.

Neuharth met that challenge by implementing an innovative business model, one that features the distribution of free newspapers to business travelers through national hotel chains. These travelers have no personal interest in the local news stories of the cities they visit, and yet they are considered attractive targets for national advertising campaigns.

Although critics disparagingly refer to the USA Today as a “Mc Paper” for its brief articles and glossy format, it has grown into a true national newspaper. For thirty years, it has been known as a prominent resource of American media and culture.

USA Today … Today

So what is the condition of the USA Today … today? It once soared past the New York Times on the strength of an innovative business model, only to fall back recently. Is it hoping to repeat its historical success soon?

Ironically, the very business strategy that permitted it to succeed during a time of paper news products is now hindering its growth in the internet era. Today, business travelers can access a wide array of news stories via the world wide web. Thus, they are no longer reliant on a “McPaper” when they are traveling for business purposes.

At the moment, the USA Today does have a web site that presents its contemporary and archived news stories. But it is hardly ever mentioned as a credible competitor among the leading online news portals; indeed, it only ranked tenth in a Nielsen survey last year.

Ready For A Backlash?

Of course, it’s quite possible that the Gannett publication may yet invent a new business model that enables it to win its battle for relevance in the media market. In fact, a number of prominent newspapers have recently experienced a backlash against their new web based strategies, and have begun to issue paper based products again.

The New Orleans Times Picayune, for instance, recently launched a streamlined newspaper on the three weekdays when it had previously terminated paper deliveries. And the initially web-only political news service Politico has launched a daily newspaper in the Washington DC and New York City markets.

None of these “retro” newspaper success stories, of course, imply that the American news market will be turning away from the internet any time soon. Nevertheless, such successes may give organizations like the USA Today hope that they – like the New York Times – will be able to design new strategies for survival.

Independent Voices and Mass Media

Is free speech possible in media that are dominated by a few mega-sized organizations? Is objective expression feasible in outlets that are owned and controlled by corporate conglomerates?

Last week, political commentator Andrew Sullivan became the latest entrepreneur to answer these questions with a resounding “no.” Citing the need for financial independence as a necessary predecessor condition for editorial independence, Sullivan announced his plan to withdraw his blog from IAC’s The Daily Beast and establish an independent media voice.

Like Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel, Sullivan is a self-described political conservator who practices the Catholic faith. Yet unlike Mr. O’Reilly, he is an openly HIV positive gay citizen who has forcefully advocated for same sex marriage.

But concerns about free speech are not unique to individuals, like Mr. Sullivan, who fail to fit easily into the conventional categories of our contemporary media industry. Indeed, such concerns predate today’s social media era, and even predate the classic newspaper era.

Lincoln’s “New Oratorical Style”

During the mid 1800s, for instance, the public lecture was a popular form of education and entertainment. Instead of relying on the fledgling newspaper industry to convey their messages to the public, politicians and other commentators would appear in churches and concert halls and deliver speeches directly to their audiences.

In 1860, a second tier Presidential candidate named Abraham Lincoln propelled himself towards the White House with a (now legendary) speaking performance at Cooper Union in New York City. The address was considered to be remarkable for its “… new oratorical style: informed by history, suffused with moral certainty, and marked by lawyerly precision.”

Social gatherings and public lectures? They may have represented the very earliest examples of social media platforms that influenced public discourse. And they served the needs of commentators to express their opinions directly to public crowds; likewise, they served the desires of the crowds for unfettered access to the speakers.

Mad as Hell!

The twentieth century, however, was marked by the corporatizing of various media outlets and the merging of independent outlets into mass market entities. In the newspaper industry, for instance, The Tribune Company evolved from its roots as an eponymous Chicago newspaper to become the conglomerate owner of the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Baltimore Sun, and other publications.

Likewise, in the radio industry, Clear Channel Communications evolved from a single San Antonio FM station in 1972 to a national behemoth with more than 830 local stations. And in the television industry, national network control over local independent stations became such a concern that the Federal Communications Commission limited network control over local content with the implementation of the Prime Time Access Rule in 1970.

Controversies about the stifling of free speech and independent expression were epitomized by the 1976 film Network. Inspired by a true incident involving a local reporter who committed suicide on a live local news broadcast after losing an argument with her editors, the film became known for its portrayal of a deranged news man who screams “”I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” about his corporate bosses.

As we entered the 21st century, many social commentators had hoped that the development of the internet would spark a “creative commons” for authors, artists, and educators to distribute their content without corporate editorial filters. But the internet medium itself has followed the industry life cycles of newspapers, radio, and television by coalescing into a small number of dominant organizations.

From Glenn Beck To Al Jazeera

Last year, for instance, the web sites that attracted the most traffic in the United States were Google / YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon. And during the past two weeks, a pair of provocative news “voices” from opposing sides of the ideological spectrum announced plans to abandon their fledgling web based platforms in favor of more traditional corporate models of distribution.

First, libertarian commentator Glenn Beck revealed that he would reposition GBTV as a libertarian themed media network called The Blaze. Then the Arab news organization Al Jazeera announced that it would purchase the liberal cable television news network Current TV, shut down its web streaming service Al Jazeera English, and relaunch its American news operations on the Current platform as a cable network named Al Jazeera America.

Beck is considered one of the founding members of the political Tea Party movement in the United States. Current TV was co-founded by former Vice President and Nobel Prize recipient Al Gore. And Al Jazeera is owned by the government of the nation of Qatar. These diverse individuals and organizations have applied impressive arrays of resources to the challenges of launching innovative independent media entities.

And now Andrew Sullivan has decided to confront the same challenges. Apparently, the quest for editorial independence and objectivity has survived into the internet media era.

The Demise of an Informed Citizenry

Last week’s decision by publisher Tina Brown to cease the print publication of Newsweek took very few industry observers by surprise. After all, the venerable news magazine had lost approximately half of its readership during the past five years, and had been struggling to regain the public’s attention through a variety of controversial tactics, such as oddly sensational cover photography.

So will the closure of the news service lead to a shortage of news providers? According to some industry experts, the answer is “no.” After all, there are still television and radio newscasts, specialty news publications, daily newspapers, and the far more venerable Time magazine. Furthermore, as the conventional wisdom stipulates, many people are now obtaining their news through Twitter and other online sources.

The audience levels of most traditional general news resources, though, are (like Newsweek’s subscriber base) rapidly yielding market share to online competitors. And though services like Twitter are becoming more prevalent, it is reasonable to ask whether services that compress reports into 140 character postings can ever take the place of magazines that publish detailed investigative news stories.

If the answer is “no,” then it may be appropriate to wonder whether the demise of Newsweek and other traditional news outlets is heralding the end of an era of an informed citizenry in the United States.

The Golden Age?

It is always tempting to glance back, wistfully, at a previous period of time and declare it to be a “golden era.” That’s because our memories have a way of accentuating the positive aspects of our past, but obscuring the troubling characteristics of prior times.

Wikipedia, for instance, defines the “golden age” of baseball as the decades of the 1920s through the 1950s. And the designation is understandable; after all, legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays all played during this period.

Nevertheless, this so-called “golden age” also encompassed the Great Depression, an era when financially strapped teams forced players to serve as their own managers and coaches because the clubs couldn’t afford to hire supervisory staff. And throughout this period of time, African American ballplayers were either banned from the sport entirely, or were savagely abused because of their ethnicity.

A golden age that, in reality, wasn’t very golden … is that how we should perceive the twentieth century of news and information as well? Or does the demise of a print publication like Newsweek truly spell the end of a more favorable time?

News, Then and Now

Although advocates of the internet claim that the medium has made information ubiquitous, news of the world was easily obtained half a century ago as well. Most major American cities were served by multiple newspaper publications that issued “update” editions two or more times each day. And all of the major television networks broadcast full documentaries during the “prime time” evening periods.

Time began printing its weekly news magazine in 1923, and Newsweek was launched precisely one decade later. These publications, as well as smaller competitors like the U.S. News and World Report, were sold through 24 hour news stands, direct mail subscriptions, and a multitude of supplemental distribution methods.

Today, of course, print newspapers are fading from the scene. Television documentary series, such as CBS’s groundbreaking See It Now with Edward R Murrow, have been replaced by reality entertainment shows. And more than half of the audience for the national evening newscasts by CBS, NBC, and ABC have been lost during the past thirty years.

The plight of these traditional news outlets would not worry public advocates if citizens are simply gravitating to alternative sources of news. But are they indeed doing so? Or, alternatively, are they actually becoming less informed over time?

The BBC vs. Twitter

Interestingly, earlier this year, the British broadcasting giant BBC acknowledged Twitter’s presence as a rival “breaking new” organization by forbidding its reporters from posting information on the web-based service before filing their reports in BBC news rooms.

Apparently, their reporters had been “tweeting” brief notifications about breaking stories before sending the same information to their own editors! Such practices do lend credence to the presumption that Twitter has emerged as a replacement news service that is filling the void left by traditional news outlets.

Far fewer citizens, though, are following CBS News on Twitter than were watching the television newscasts thirty years ago. CBS’s current television audience usually approximates six million viewers, an amount that has fallen by more than six million during the past thirty years.

Today, there are slightly more than two million individuals who are following CBS News on Twitter. So what happened to the other four million individuals who once watched Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather every night?

It is, perhaps, possible that they have chosen to follow a different news service on Twitter. A more worrisome possibility, though, is that they are no longer bothering to remain informed about current events at all.