How I learned to stop worrying and love bad newspaper news

We had a hard time finding the good news in Monday’s report that U.S. newspaper circulation has fallen more than 10 percent, based on an analysis of 379 daily papers. Thank goodness for the newspapers whose publishers helped them understand why losing hundreds or thousands of paying readers is good.

Most papers acknowledged deep declines in circulation, but explained it in one of the following ways:

    We had to clear out all the bulk copies sold at discount. (I’m still not sure how this one works because I recall publishers saying this a couple of years ago. How many deadwood readers are there?) We shrank our coverage area so of course we lost some circulation. It tells advertisers that they’re getting a BETTER quality of reader. We’re charging more for the paper so circulation revenue has risen, and anyway, who wants to rely on a business as fickle as advertising (the one that lined our owners’ pockets for the past 150 years.)? Readership is rising on the Internet. At least we didn’t get whacked as bad as the next guy.

All these statements are true, and they all are good business moves. What I can’t find among the numbers is what percent of print decline at many of these papers is because of the other reasons that you hear from people. Some are legitimate, some aren’t and some are just silly. All say one thing: Many people don’t pay for the paper anymore, which means there’s less money to keep them in business. (Don’t believe us? Ask the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer):

    I hate my newspaper My newspaper doesn’t have anything interesting in it News is boring News is free on the Internet My newspaper is biased to the right/left/middle/other Little League team than the one my kid is on My paper stopped running Garfield in the funnies. It doesn’t run Hints From Heloise anymore. You can’t get good TV listings anymore I don’t care about anything that happens in the rest of the world or outside my front door. There’s not enough local/regional/national/world news here. The sports section sucks. It always arrives too early/late for me to read it.

Here are samples of how some papers handled Monday’s news:

San Francisco Chronicle headline: Chronicle’s strategy shift starts to pay off

Hearst board additions feel… papery

You have to give Hearst some credit for sticking to what it knows. Check the short biographies of the four company executives who are joining the publisher (and broadcaster’s) board:

    George R. Hearst III, publisher of the Albany Times Union. Newspapers. Papery. Richard P. Malloch, president of Hearst Business Media and senior vice president of Hearst Corporation. He used to run Hearst’s consumer books business before selling it to HarperCollins. Papery. Scott M. Sassa, president of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication and senior vice president of Hearst Corporation. OK — a former Internet startup and venture capital guy, not to mention his career at NBC — maybe not so papery. Steven R. Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers and senior vice president of Hearst Corporation. He also ran the yellow pages business, though he seems less papery when you find out that he helped start the newspaper consortium with Yahoo. That has been a well meaning if not game-changing attempt to get newspapers and Yahoo to the point where they both feed each other big advertising profits.

Now, Hearst might be experiencing some tough times in the newspaper business, having closed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and having thought publicly about dropping the San Francisco Chronicle. At the same time, it’s not trying to save itself by changing everything it does and acting like a new media company.

One bit of possible wisdom that I hear people saying these days is: Why not manage your media business to deal with what it knows? The print business might be declining but, if managed properly, there might be a graceful way to run things that doesn’t erode what cash the business is making with no clear way of replacing it. Maybe these print guys know something after all.

The New York Times tries local news, far away

If you read often enough about the supposed death of the newspaper business, you would think that the nation’s newsrooms are increasingly depopulated, barren places, with darkened offices and empty cubicles… the occasional tumbleweed blowing past. (Actually,  large stretches of Tribune Co’s New York bureau look just like that, as I saw earlier this year).

In San Francisco, Chicago and other metropolitan centers, you would be wrong. It’s true that both cities bear unfortunate marks of how rough the advertising decline, rise of the Internet and financial crisis have treated their news operations: Hearst was toying with shutting down the San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago’s leading daily papers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, are owned by bankrupt companies. Improbably enough, both are turning into hot spots for local news competition.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are fighting over San Francisco, and a private equity guy has teamed up with KQED and UC Berkeley to try a nonprofit local news experiment. And now, the Times reported on Wednesday, it is targeting some other cities, including Chicago. Here is an excerpt from reporter Richard Perez-Pena’s writeup on the Times’s decoder blog: