Disappointing news this week of another old and respected newspaper moving away from daily print publication to online. This time, it's The Oregonian, the 162-year old Portland, OR daily owned by Advance Publications.
Reports say Advance is having The Oregonian follow in the footsteps of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and other Advance-owned dailies are sure to follow. Advance, which owns nearly 40 papers around the U.S. including news leaders like The Newark Star Ledger and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, has already moved eight of its papers from daily to digital in Michigan, Alabama and, in October, New Orleans.
Like just about the entire newspaper industry, The Oregonian's circulation has been declining, from nearly 350,000 ten years ago to the present 225,000. Meanwhile, the paper's website OregonLive.com got more than 4.9 million unique hits this past June, reports Editor & Publisher. At the same time, E&P says, the paper is struggling to hold onto advertising.
Going digital, many say, cuts overhead by reducing or eliminating the need for newsprint, presses and the people to run the presses. It also cuts delivery expenses. But a huge payroll cost remains --- the newsroom staff.
When Advance announced the move from daily to digital in New Orleans, they also announced layoffs of almost half the newsroom. People and organizations in the Crescent City have been expressing concern that important local news may go unreported or under-reported because the digital paper won't have enough staff to cover. Yes, breaking news may get online immediately, but how accurately and with how much background, analysis and context?
The Oregonian's publisher has told E&P there are no plans to change the publishing schedule, but they've made promises in the past -- like promising to keep full-time employees back in 2010 and then laying off 37 people, mostly from the newsroom.
One analyst quoted in the E&P story says a transition to digital might be easier in Portland, since it's a more affluent and "more wired" city than New Orleans. But he points to problems with the layout and mechanics of both the NOLA (New Orleans) and OregonLive sites, where breaking news gets pushed down the screen and onto the next screen as other news comes online. That's a problem Advance needs to deal with if its sites will really serve their readership properly.
But the biggest problem really is not about the changes in print frequency and the move to online. It's about money and staying profitable, so the temptation is always there to cut the costly newsroom staff. Printing and delivery operations make up about 35 percent of a newspaper's costs, E&P says. The rest is administrative, sales and the newsroom. Cutting the newsroom staff in half can cut expenses down to the bone, say the numbers-crunchers.
One has to wonder what will be left in terms of content, be it in print or online?
It's a very tough choice for newspaper owners. Allan Mutter, a former editor at The Chicago Daily News, The Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle, is a consultant on new media and journalism and teaches journalism at the grad school at UC at Berkeley. His blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur, examines three strategies for newspapers. He refers to Advance Publications' strategy as "Milking It," or maximizing the cash you can milk out of a dying business. He says the quality of reporting at the Advance site AnnArbor.com, which has replaced the old daily Ann Arbor News, is poor and gets no buzz in the community. The remaining twice-weekly print edition, done on the cheap with minimal news staff, has dropped down to 35,000 copies from 54,200 three years ago. It doesn't bode well for news coverage in other cities served by Advance papers.
For more insight, check out Mutter's blog. Scroll down to his July 11th post, "What's next for newspapers?"