The Newspaper Junkie has been roused from his grouchy slumber, which means it’s time for me to bite the hand the hosts me. (Again). Sorry about that, but a blogger’s gotta blog what a blogger’s gotta blog. Or whatever else it is the kids say these days when they’re keeping it real.
At the St. Rose Blogmonster Summit last March, I asked the panel how they felt about their role in destroying local print newspaper media, a role that I also feel I play here, with no small sense of guilt for doing so. Times Union staffer Steve Barnes fielded my question, and reasonably noted that new media technology doesn’t necessarily displace or eliminate old media technology. Most of us still read books, for example, and Steve noted that he still listens to the radio every morning, and from that position, extrapolated that there will still be a role for print newspapers in the future, even as more and more readers get their information online.
In general terms, I guess I don’t disagree with Steve. I do believe that there will be print newspapers to read a decade or two from now, just as there are vinyl records still being manufactured for those who prefer them to their digital counterparts. The thing is, though, that I do not believe that the Times Union will be one of those surviving print newspapers.
As its price has doubled over the past couple of years, the print Times Union‘s content has shrunk dramatically, both in terms of quantity and (sorry to say) the depth and quality of the local reportage and commentary. There are still some wonderful writers, reporters, photographers and editors working there at the corner of Albany-Shaker and Maxwell, but as their ranks are stretched thinner and thinner, and their content is tailored for both print and online markets, and as readers are ever more encouraged to submit their thoughts, stories and images directly to fill column space, it seems that any unique, distinct Times Union print voice has all but disappeared. These are not trends that support long-term business viability, and I don’t see these trends reversing themselves with the recovering economy. Once the price of a newspaper goes up, even when advertising and other revenues return, we’re never likely to see it go back down again. And once a newspaper has gotten readers used to paying for 36 pages a day, they’re not likely to ever start printing 52 again.
I did a quick analysis of yesterday’s edition, looking at each page and mapping its contents in one-eighth page blocks. These are rough figures, and they may be off by 5/64ths or three column inches or whatever, but in broad strokes, here’s how I’d parse the 36 pages of the Monday, April 26th edition of the Times Union (not counting the advertising inserts, which I toss unread as nuisances):
36% Paid Advertising (~13 pages)
23% National Origination Editorial/News/Comics/Features/Sports (~8 pages)
21% Local Origination Editorial/News/Comics/Features/Sports (~8 pages)
14% Listings/Classifieds/Obituaries/Notices (~5 pages)
6% Pointers to and Support for timesunion.com (~2 pages)
So, basically, the stuff that I might actually read in the newspaper was about 16 pages total (e.g. the sum of the local and National origination news and features). And if you figure that maybe only one in three pieces of any publication actually engages and interests me enough to read it all the way through, I’m getting about five pages of useful content out of 36. And since I read the copy of the Times Union delivered to my house in the evening when I get home, odds are that I’ve already seen the contents of four of those five pages online during the day. So that leaves me about a page of newsprint every evening to ponder, scant return for my dollar a day investment. Sure, they’re running some “print only” articles of late, but they’re generally soft features, and I don’t lose anything waiting a day to see them online. Frankly, it’s only inertia at this point that keeps me from canceling my 16-year running subscription to the paper, since I spend more time storing and recycling the paper than I do reading it anymore. Which I find sad, because when I moved here in 1993, I often bragged about what a good newspaper we had in this relatively small market, and I meant it.
But that’s not true these days, when it is clear that the Powers That Be in the T.U. corporate boardroom have made their strongest commitments to their web presence, in terms of time, talent, and treasure. Unfortunately, an important facet of the Times Union‘s online success relates to the fact that the lion’s share of the blogs here are written by unpaid volunteers, who drive traffic to this website (and the websites of its advertisers) solely for the pleasure of having their names and words put out before the public under the Times Union banner. While everyone here could be blogging under their own mastheads, easily (and lots of us do), there seems to be some social cache, some sense of having “arrived” as an Albany-area blogger, when you join Team Times Union here.
Now, many of seemingly tech savvy folks hereabouts sniff dismissively about our colleagues over at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, who require registration and a paid subscription to access their online content. How Trogloditic! Quels Luddites! They clearly don’t get the online content picture at all, not like we do here at timesunion.com! But you know what? The resources that they aren’t applying online are, instead, being applied to their print edition, and as a result, for my dollar a day, the Daily Gazette has clearly emerged as the best print newspaper in this market, and I feel better about the likelihood of them pushing out newsprint day after day in 2020 than I do about the Times Union‘s print prospects down the line.
In a world of finite resources, you have to make decisions about where you apply them. The Daily Gazette has clearly decided that it wants to prioritize its print content, and consistently delivers a quality print product as a result of that prioritization. The Times Union? Not so clear in that regard, especially given the amount of space in the print edition that is dedicated to pushing readers to the online edition.
So when I look in my crystal ball to see what “Blogmonster Conference 2020: The Revenge of the Matchboys” might look like, I envision that timesunion.com will remain a widely read electronic resource, and that the Daily Gazette will be the printed paper document of record for New York’s Capital Region. And that’s okay by me, really, as a consumer, with one caveat: timesunion.com needs to not needlessly annoy its visitors with increasingly obtrusive advertising, like the videos and automatically-unfurling banners that block our blogs and articles in an effort to make us click them inadvertently.
I gave up on Yahoo as my homepage a couple of years ago when their distracting advertising grew too voluminous to bear, and I’d certainly hate to see timesunion.com follow them down that route. If you’re going to be the great digital portal hereabouts, a little design dignity and restraint would be in order. Just saying.