In the past few months, plenty of turmoil has swept through the newspaper industry both in northwest Louisiana and the state as a whole. You may thank this column in part for that.
Earlier in the year, Gannett Corporation, the owner of the Shreveport Times and several others newspapers in Louisiana, notified the world that by the end of the year its websites would be converted to paid models of delivery as a response to the rapidly declining revenues from its print versions. The idea is that too much of the product was going out for free and therefore to monetize it beyond the small contributions of digital ad sales.
But this tactic only will slow the decline, because you can’t compete against others still giving away essentially the same content for free. In the good old days, in almost any area of interest, the only source of information or entertainment one could get in a portable, on-demand way was a newspaper. However, you had to pay for it.
Then came the Internet, and by the 21st Century people could get state, national, and international news for free. Then came widespread blogging, where their multiplicity provided increasingly more and greater numbers of alternative sources of information and entertainment. Worse, more and more Internet-only sites that could use technology’s gifts could produce their own original content scalable so that they could give it away for free while collecting sufficient revenues from advertisers and market researchers.
Finally, portability has arrived with digital tablets and phones. And other media, already more amenable to digitalization, could take better advantage of the situation. This is why Gannett’s efforts only will slow the slide: in a few keystrokes, television stations just rip their content right off the air, transcript molded into a narrative in words, and put it out there on the Internet, already paid for by the ads during broadcast.
The Gannett strategy is predicated on the idea that people will pay for unique content. But unless you’re absurdly wedded to a particular writer or the comics, none of their content will be unique. For example, if you want general local political news, the TV stations’ sites will give that to you for free. If you want specific analysis or more in-depth coverage, you can get it here – and at a rate cheaper than daily, even weekend, subscription to The Times.
Lou Burnett, FAX-Net’s publisher, has been covering politics around northwest Louisiana, and deeply embedded, for almost two decades – and this after him being in Washington, DC, for another quarter century or so. I’ve been here over 20 years analyzing and writing about state and local politics. And you don’t even have to pay for other sources about that news on the Internet such as you are doing right now. The problem with the Gannett model is that the value added from their coverage is less than the price they charge for it, compared to value offered by alternative sources, segmented and tailored to meet an audience’s needs both for content and format.
This comparative disadvantage gets further aggravated as cost savings measures decrease the potential value added. More recently, Gannett pushed into retirement several individuals from The Times, most relevant to readers of this space being longtime employee and likely the last full-time editorial page coordinator of it Craig Durrett. He wasn’t always correct on the issues, but when he was and it addressed a topic of local concern, he provided valuable input into the policy-making process. Perhaps his finest efforts came in the year before getting his parachute, where he played a major role in elevating the issue of LA Highway 3132
extension to public consciousness, and his several editorials on the matter likely were significant in efforts to keep the process transparent and official accountable.
But that expertise got wiped away, and over time it in fact it might end up getting replicated by the free content community. Thus, local print journalism entities are getting eroded from the top end by the plethora of national news freely available, at the bottom end by the presence of individuals at the local level who can claim plausibly as much or not much less expertise in provision of information and for free, and for where specialty or intense interest in a subject requires some expertise, platforms now exist that render it at reduced prices.
Political news, the subject of this publication and column, is even more openly and freely available than most kinds. If candidates for office aren’t trying to give it away in order to get elected, all sorts of legal requirements make a lot of information public, and plenty of volunteers exist to disseminate at least some of what is not required to be public, or to interpret what is. Newspapers have to realize that they don’t have anything that is difficult to find, or any demonstrably expert ability in delivering it. In sum, they are just trying to make money with a product to which they can’t add much value and in getting it they face relatively higher gathering and distribution costs.
When this reality catches up with The Times, whether it will or can go the way of the New Orleans Times-Picayune is another matter. Before the end of the year the doyen of the state’s journalism will cut back to thrice-weekly distribution and concentrate more of its efforts on web content and distribution. Its sister paper in Ann Arbor, MI has eliminated completely print. Its scalability in a far larger metropolitan area and local market penetration might bring it success where if The Times did the same it would fold.
Not that, for those interested in local politics, that much might be missed. Online these days The Times, besides broadly-construed stories of meetings of council, commissions, police juries, and boards, unless a potential felony is involved almost no local politics gets reported. Only the most unremarkable editorials appear, although a guest (which costs nothing) piece sometimes spices things up. Let us hope its slide into its seemingly increasing and unavoidable irrelevance does not significantly impoverish political debate about politics in northwest Louisiana.
Talk about the local newspaper industry