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The Real Problems Facing American Newspapers

LOS ANGELES — On February 29, the Daily News announced the layoffs of 22 “…reporters, photographers, editors and library and clerical staff…” in their newsroom, trimming their staff down to one hundred.

The layoffs, part of budget cuts that have been talked about for quite some time on LA Observed, are aimed at cutting costs at the Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram, two of the 57 daily newspapers owned by MediaNews Group, a national newspaper conglomerate that also owns the Daily Breeze, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Pasadena Star-News, San Bernadino County Sun, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News and many others throughout California and across the country.

One of the Daily News staffers who was laid off on Friday was Matthew Kredell, their beat writer covering the Los Angeles Kings this season.

Kredell had been with the Daily News for nine years, and was in his first year covering the Kings.

I wish Matt well in the future. I first met him during training camp, and we talked several times in the Kings’ dressing room or the Chick Hearn Media Room at Staples Center before and after home games throughout the season. I respected his dedication to his assignment and I believe he did well, especially since he was covering hockey for the first time. He learned the game quickly.

To be sure, it is never fun when one loses his or her job—I have been laid off in the past myself. It certainly isn’t easy to deal with. That said, this is not about one man losing his job. Rather, I just keep wondering when newspaper publishers/owners are going to figure out what it is they are doing wrong.

Newspapers began cutting corners many years ago, before the World Wide Web became all the rage. Whether it was using cheaper newsprint, reducing the size of the paper used, cutting the number of pages, reducing the size of the type used, or whatever, the last twenty-five years or so has been about anything but quality in the newspaper business, at least here in the United States.

Newspaper owners consistently point to rising costs and lower revenues. They blame the World Wide Web for taking readers away from the print editions of their newspapers, reducing their subscriber base.

While there is a good deal of truth to that, it certainly isn’t the entire truth. Indeed, what newspapers have failed to understand is that their constant cutting away at their publications has drastically reduced the quality of what is published in the pages of our nation’s newspapers.

Here in Southern California, all one has to do is look at the Los Angeles Times. Once owned by the Chandler family, it was purchased by the Tribune Company, which owned the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Cubs, KTLA-TV 5 here in Los Angeles and much more, and was recently purchased by Chicago businessman Sam Zell.

Tribune’s legacy quickly became a bad one at the Los Angeles Times, filled with little more than steep budget cuts, employee buyouts, cuts in the content of the newspaper and horrendous morale problems among its beleaguered staff caused by all the cuts—the Los Angeles Times has also lost a ton of quality writers who have left on their own, accelerating the decline of the paper.

That decline has continued under Zell’s reign, as he too has instituted his own series of cuts at the paper, including those in content and in staffing.

The result: The once mighty Los Angeles Times is a mostly lousy newspaper that is not only struggling just to stay relevant to the community it is far less dedicated to serve than it once was under the ownership of the Chandler family, but it is a newspaper that is so poor that it is driving subscribers away from its pages rather than attracting readers.

Indeed, conversations about the Los Angeles Times around town, at least in my experience, lament the steep decline in the quality of the once great newspaper. Most of those have dropped their subscriptions and rarely read the web version for that reason.

Coverage of the local National Hockey League teams by the Los Angeles Times is a good example of sacrificing quality to satisfy the bean counters running the show.

Southern California hockey fans are all too familiar with their decision last season to stop sending a beat writer on the road with both the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings last season.

The Times continued to ignore the Kings when they were on the road all season. But when it became clear that the Ducks were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, they started sending a writer on the road with the team once again.

This season, the Times began by sending their respective beat writers on the road with both the Ducks and the Kings. But as soon as it became clear that the Kings were not going anywhere this season, the Times immediately stopped sending their writer on the road. Once again, the bottom line was far more important than providing the quality journalism their subscribers expect and pay for.

But at least the Los Angeles Times is sending a beat writer on the road with one of our local NHL teams. The Daily News stopped sending beat writers on the road with the Kings about the same time that the Times did and has never looked back at that decision.

Of course, one cannot discount the impact of the World Wide Web. Many people—maybe even a majority now—get their news on the web, whether it is from traditional news web sites such as CNN.com or even the Los Angeles Times or Daily News web sites, and that certainly presents a huge challenge to newspaper publishers in terms of competition.

The problem is that the newspaper industry has failed to meet the challenge quite miserably. Instead, newspaper owners and publishers have done little more than whine, bitch and moan about their constantly declining subscriber numbers and the lower revenues that go along with it, including advertising revenues.

But whining, bitching and moaning seems to be all they do as they scramble to appease their shareholders. The problem is, all of their efforts appear to be aimed at making their investors happy while totally ignoring their readers.

Anyone still wondering why our once great newspapers are so bad now?

Some counter that a big reason that newspapers are losing readers is because of bias in reporting. That may be true in the eyes of some, but I do not buy that argument. Indeed, if that were true, you would not have people eating up every word uttered by the likes of the Drudge Report, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs and other television news personalities branded as liberal or conservative.

To be sure, biased reporting is quite popular these days. People seem to love to hear “journalists” interject their opinions and blatantly push their own ideas and beliefs into their news reports, rather than provide an objective report so that the viewing public can make their own opinion.

Nevertheless, such biased reporting is not the reason for the decline of readership of newspapers. Rather, as stated earlier, the web has taken a big bite, but contributing just as much, if not more, is the tremendous decline in quality of the American newspaper caused by massive budget, content and staffing cuts. The Los Angeles Times and the Daily News are prime examples, but they certainly are not the exception.

Until newspaper owners and publishers kick the bean counters out of the decision-making positions and replace them with experienced journalists with some business acumen, and also realize that they need to invest more into a combined print and web strategy that will dramatically improve the amount and quality of their content instead of constantly cutting away at their product with the sole purpose of appeasing shareholders, they will continue to plummet into the abyss called irrelevance and our society will suffer the consequences.


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13 Responses to The Real Problems Facing American Newspapers

  1. KingsCast Hockey Podcast says:

    This is a great article, Gann. Nice work. It’s unfortunate that we lost Kredell but you are right on the money with the larger issue.

  2. Gann Matsuda says:

    Keith…yeah, it is really sad what has happened to our newspapers over the last 25 years. Newspaper owners/publishers continue to find excuses rather than take a long, hard look at what their REAL problems are and try to address them. Sadly, the bean counters are in charge, and all they care about is appeasing shareholders. Their readers mean nothing to them.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Interesting that you would pick a couple marginally relevant right-wing hacks to support your stance, but in a funny way, it goes against your thesis.

    O’Reilly and the like are only wildly popular on the fringe right, just like the NYT is only eaten up by the fringe left. How may rational, mainstream Americans run around with Bill O’Reilly stickers on their cars? Probably about the same number as read the NYT. BO has more money than God, but he’ll never be popular beyond the right-wing kooks.

    Throwing money at something isn’t the answer. Writing something that doesn’t push the agenda of one particular group at the exclusion of another is (except on the op-ed page, of course)…

  4. Gann Matsuda says:

    You have a very extreme view of what you consider conservative and liberal media (I named O’Reilly, et. al because I was in a hurry to finish that story and couldn’t think of anyone else at the time).

    O’Reilly etc. are actually viewed as being rather representative of mainstream conservative politics by many out there, and the New York Times is not viewed as being nothing more than a leftist mouthpiece, which you make it out to be.

    And no one said anything about simply throwing money at a problem. There is obviously more than that that must be done here.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “O’Reilly etc. are actually viewed as being rather representative of mainstream conservative politics by many out there, and the New York Times is not viewed as being nothing more than a leftist mouthpiece, which you make it out to be.”

    No. People who lean to the left view BO as being representative on mainstream conservatism.

    And the NYT is widely regarded as leaning left. If you honestly don’t think the NYT has a liberal bias, then it’s not worth even carrying on the discussion.

  6. Gann Matsuda says:

    Really? A lot of my conservative friends think O’Reilly is a god. So what does that tell you?

    As for the NYT, yeah, it leans to the left. But there are papers that lean to the right. The point I was trying to make is that you’re pushing it farther to the left than it probably is.

  7. Anonymous says:

    then your conservative friends are fruitcakes. not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  8. Gann Matsuda says:

    Couldn’t it also mean that you’re wrong? :-)

  9. Anonymous says:

    yes. it could. it doesn’t, but theoretically, it could. the latest ratings i can find put BO with a 1.6 share, which translates into less than 2 million viewers. i would say that < 2 million viewers in a country of 300 million does not make you mainstream, your friends notwithstanding. you probably have that many readers on your blog.

  10. Gann Matsuda says:

    2 million blog readers? You can’t be serious!

  11. Anonymous says:

    oh c’mon, what are a few zeros amongst friends?

  12. Anonymous says:

    Gann,

    The problem is two fold … firstly over the past 30 years, newspapers and all media have decided that they are entertainment and not an unbiased source of information. That change in attitude didn’t come down from the reporters or editors, that edict came down from the publishers who are less concerned with classic news reporting than with profits.

    The secondary problem, and perhaps the bigger problem is that people no longer look to the news media for information or objective reporting. For the most part, the American public is just looking for viewpoints that validate their own. With the multitude of “non-standard” media sources that can validate their opinions, no matter which side (or both sides in some cases) of an issue, why “trust” a mass media aggregator like a newspaper with a broad circulation when it can find an obscure, or not so obscure viewpoint that will validate and pander to the uneducated desires of people who have already made up their minds about issues?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Matt may not have known hockey like some, but he was a devoted writer and was doing great work. He asked the hard questions and never went for Crawford’s bullshit no-answer answers. This is a real shame for the paper but moreso for fans who want coverage of the team.

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