x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Newspapers becoming a side dish despite growing appetite for news

Correspondent's Notebook Hit by declining revenues and and numbers of readers, dailies are cutting staff and costs - and their ability to keep people fully informed.

Richard Gross, a former op-ed editor of The Baltimore Sun, moved to New Mexico from the suburbs of Washington and has been doing editing work for the Brookings Institution think tank and other organisations. Brian Barger left his job as an assistant foreign editor at The Washington Post to write fiction and look after his grandchildren. He is helping his daughter move across the country and plans to take photography classes in Maine this summer.

Tony Reid, Mr Barger's foreign desk colleague, returned to the high school from which he graduated more than 25 years ago to work as a writing mentor. He said he was inspired to take the paper's generous buyout offer in part because he "knew the business was collapsing and I thought I'd better take the money while it was on the table". Victoria Cherrie stayed in Charlotte, North Carolina, where her life was once consumed with breaking stories about police brutality and government corruption to volunteer, launch a journalism initiative and contemplate her next move.

As these journalists, all of whom I have worked with, are proving, there is indeed life after newspapers. The economic downturn and declining ad revenues coupled with the ever-changing ways in which information is delivered are threatening even the most profitable and highly regarded newspapers. Buyouts and layoffs have become commonplace. Who would have thought just three years ago that the words The New York Times Co and bankruptcy would appear in the same story or that it would threaten to close The Boston Globe, which it owns, unless it received millions of dollars in labour cost concessions? On Monday, the paper's largest union narrowly rejected a company offer that would have included an 8.4 per cent pay cut and one-week unpaid furloughs, Bloomberg reported. The paper's survival is now in doubt.

Who could have imagined the editors at The Washington Post, the paper of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, holding a meeting with the purveyors of Facebook about ways to market online the information it gathers? What journalist gave a twit about a tweet when Barack Obama was simply a state senator? While I am glad my friends were at least able to take advantage of buyout offers and are pursing new challenges, seeing them leave newspapers their talents greatly enriched is disheartening.

Media company executives will talk about restructuring, doing more with less and delivering the news over multiple platforms. They will look at the buyouts as a way to trim operating costs. Newspaper circulation declines will continue, many will say, as they push to make the internet and delivering news by the newest gizmo the priority. In a memo to Post employees announcing the latest buyout offer, Katherine Weymouth, the publisher, wrote: "I need not tell you that our industry is undergoing a seismic shift as readers face an array of media choices and our traditional advertising and circulation bases decline. The good news is that the appetite for news is as robust as ever. Thanks to our presence on the internet and on mobile phones and other devices, our audience includes more readers now than we have ever had. But while online revenues have been growing, they have not yet grown fast enough to offset the declines we are seeing in print revenues ... we will have to reduce our cost structure."

Anyone who has worked for a newspaper knows that the talents, passions and dedication of the reporters and editors, photographers and graphic artists and the connections they all have with the readers make it much more than simply another device. Mr Reid probably speaks for all those who have left life at a newspaper when he says: "I miss the people the most. There are ? a lot of smart, neurotic people in newsrooms. It makes for great conversation and, because of the mixture of the personalities and the deadline pressure, an intense atmosphere. Most people are deeply invested in the process and the product, and that makes it a great place to be."

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mike Hughes, an ad agency executive and former reporter, was on target when he said in trying to persuade advertisers not to abandon newspapers: "The world needs the kind of journalism practised by newspapers when they're at their best. The local investigative pieces. The foreign correspondence. The war reporting. Without them, news goes unreported. Viewpoints are narrowed. Governments can run amok.

"That kind of reporting is expensive, and right now no one knows how it will get paid for in the coming years." Mr Gross, whose rich career included stints as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and as an editor in Washington, said his transition from newspaper work "has been rough at times because I miss the feeling of being connected with the world". Like anyone else with a computer and a modem, Mr Gross can get online every day and read the news, watch videos and chat with people from all over the globe. But he knows there is still a disconnect.

Living life through a computer screen does not compare with reading a newspaper at the local coffee shop and sharing the stories of the day or working in a big-city newsroom. rpretorius@thenational.ae