Newspaper upheaval isn’t a topic you’ll read about in most newspapers, for at least several reasons: One, despite their constant crowing about “transparency,” newspapers are notorious for the privacy of their own internal issues, particularly when it comes to declining circulation, falling revenue and slashed staffing. Nothing to see here, folks; we’ll give you scoops on government, but on ourselves, not so much.
Two, the financial profile of the industry as a whole isn’t very good. Many newspapers have lost thousands of print subscribers in this Internet age, and these losses have resulted in sharp increases in subscription rates for the dwindling hangers-on. But few newspapers will tell readers that.
Three, newspaper executives are often gun shy about their own industry because, well, they don’t really know how to stop the declines. It used to be that community newspapers were wonderfully profitable businesses, with profit margins from 30 percent on up. To own a daily newspaper was a license to print money. Now, 10 percent margins are bragging rights.
But changing times bring changing conditions. While it may be tempting to see Idaho newspapers as stable entities serving separate communities, they’re just as subject to major trends as their big city cousins.
One big recent change on the horizon is the potential bankruptcy, sale or re-scaling of the McClatchy newspaper group, which owns The Idaho Statesman. Recent reports from the well-regarded Poynter media monitoring site (www.poynter.org.) show how declines in McClatchy’s valuation (from close to $3.00/share in early November to less than $.50/share by Nov, 15) are particularly sobering.
The fine print from McClatchy’s own SEC filings are even less optimistic, saying “these conditions raise substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern …” The result was a stock crash on Friday, Nov. 15, of two-thirds of the company’s valuation, from $1.41/share to $.49/share and a potential delisting from the NYSE stock exchange.
McClatchy has owned The Idaho Statesman for more than a dozen years, during which time the Boise newspaper has undergone layoffs, contractions, reduced revenue and, more recently, increased competition from an expanding Press-Tribune out of Nampa. The Statesman dismantled its entire printing operation and began printing in Nampa and, more recently, in Twin Falls, some two hours away. That required giving up some real-time Treasure Valley evening reporting, particularly in sports. Its iconic office building on Curtis Road is once again listed for sale (www.BoiseDev.com) Sept. 17, 2019.
The Press-Tribune has gained in both Treasure Valley market share and circulation. It now covers Boise city issues with an expanded staff in the hopes of further gains among former Stateman readers. (As part of its “regional strategy,” the Press-Tribune has dropped “Nampa” from its nameplate, as well as picking up several smaller newspapers in Kuna, Emmett and Meridian, a “mop up” strategy of not leaving any community behind.)
The Press-Tribune is owned by Adams Newspapers, which also bought the Idaho Falls Post-Register and the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello, as well as smaller nearby weekly papers in Eastern Idaho’s hinterlands. Adams is now positioned to be the leading newspaper entity in three of four of Southern Idaho’s major markets, the Treasure Valley, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, with only Twin Falls outside Adams’ control, at least for now.
Since it’s privately-held, Adams is likely more nimble and adaptive than its competitors among public newspapers like McClatchy and Lee Enterprises, which owns The Times-News in Twin Falls. Adams also has experience in such seemingly disparate endeavors as outdoor advertising, camping and recreation, and it made a recent foray into cross-content with KTVB television in Boise.
It’s been a number of years since I was in newspaper executive management, but the trends in Idaho newspapering aren’t hard to spot. A few years ago, I served as an over-the-shoulder consultant to a small group of well-heeled Idaho investors who were considering buying the Statesman. McClatchy was approached, but wanted more for the property than it was probably worth, so a deal never came together. But times have changed for the so-called “legacy media,” and not for the better.
Developing “regional” approaches aren’t new in the newspaper industry, but the Adams expansion in Idaho has already had significant impact on both the Statesman and the Times-News, where the Statesman is now printed. The two-hour time, 125-mile distance to truck papers from Twin Falls to Boise has weakened Bronco reporting with often little overnight BSU football coverage, and a resulting contraction of readership and advertising.
As I read the Poynter reports, and the excellent Pew Center summaries of the industry (https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/news-media-trends/), there’s no guaranteed outcomes for Idaho’s newspapers. McClatchy has announced plans to end Saturday print publication in all of its markets, including Boise in 2020, thus leaving the local sports field further to the Press-Tribune. That’s a move sure to further reduce Statesman community value and support.
Some of these changes are being seen nationally as newspapers shed their traditional print base and move to online subscriptions. But the advertising support has not kept up and the relentless pressure of Google and Facebook growth shows no letup. Higher internet use isn’t helping newspapers either; as online sites have proliferated, newspapers find fewer and fewer digital readers willing to pay for local new reporting.
That, along with a perpetual drift of content to the left politically, has driven away millions of newspaper readers who find they are more comfortable with news they agree with. Many readers don’t want to be “force fed” ideological-driven news and editorializing with which they fundamentally disagree. Thus, the messengers viewed as biased pay the price as readers go elsewhere, leaving the “legacy media” behind as new upstarts emerge.