Hastened by the economic and credit crisis, we are moving ever closer to a moment of catastrophe for one or more major daily newspapers. Sometime in the next few months, we're going to lose one–or it's going to be changed so radically as to be barely recognizable under the current definition of daily newspaper. And given the lemming-like tendencies of the newspaper industry, once one newspaper goes, others will quickly follow.
Call it the End of Days–or of Dailies.
This calamity could take one of several forms, ranging from a significant change in presentation of a paper to outright extinction. Critics of recent newsroom cutbacks would argue that staff reductions already have significantly changed the quality and personality of many papers. But we ain't seen nothing yet. Here are some scenarios, in ascending order of severity:
Shrinkage I–We've already seen newspapers beginning to cut back on the number of sections they publish–the New York Times recently shrank to four from six sections, and the new Chicago Tribune redesign is down to three sections. And the Tampa Tribune just switched to a single-section design. The section-shrinkage strategy is well underway. Taken to it logical end, this could mean that the printed newspaper eventually becomes a brief overview of the day's news, for readers who still want a print edition, with the bulk of the news report (and hopefully advertising) shifting online.
Shrinkage II–Most major daily papers are broadsheets. But tabloids are cheaper to print. In Europe, many papers have switched from broadsheet to tabloid size ("format" may not be the right word!). Look for it happen here, to save production and distribution costs. Indeed, the Lafayette, Ind., Journal & Courier switched to the tabloid-like Berliner format two years ago. This is the logical extension of the inch-here, inch-there page trims that many papers have implemented in the past couple of years to cut costs.
Shrinkage III–When is a daily newspaper not a daily newspaper? When it only publishes a handful of days a week. Don't laugh; I hear it's being serious discussed at at least one big paper. Imagine cutting back to, say, Sunday, Friday and Wednesday circulation, to capture the biggest advertising days while eschewing the others. We've seen the first vestiges of this–papers killing their Saturday or even Monday editions. But some paper may decide that the cost-cutting numbers work to switch to three or four days a week. Or even Sunday-only. The paper's Web site would handle the daily news. (What a concept!)
Bankruptcy–Unable to cut costs as quickly as revenues are falling, facing the same economic and credit challenges that are roiling the rest of American businesses (and particularly vulnerable because of concurrent cutbacks by strapped advertisers) and trapped, in many cases, in overleveraged loans taken out to buy newspapers back when things looked better, many newspaper companies have hit a sort of perfect storm of financial peril. Owners in Minneapolis and Philadelphia already are behind on loan payments. Papers in San Francisco and Newark are bleeding tens of millions of dollars a year (and those are just the ones we know about). McClatchy, still suffering from massive indigestion from its acquisition of Knight Ridder, just restructured its debt. Newspaper company corporate debt is facing downgrades in an already tough credit market. Stocks in most publicly owned chains are plumbing all-time lows–or worse, being delisted by stock markets. These are not good signs. Some–though not all–of these publishers are on the razor's edge, and we're likely to see bankruptcy filings by one or more in the next few months. It may be all but inevitable for those carrying massive amounts of debt. That, in turn, could set off whole new rounds of cutbacks. Best case, maybe: Vulture investors move in to grab newspaper assets for pennies on the dollar. Trust me, they'll run them as cheaply as they can, and today's reduced budgets may look generous.
Shutdown–Some publishers may choose to just turn out the lights, shut down the presses and lock the door. That's exactly what Advance is threatening in Newark. Not a lot of people think Hearst will continue to tolerate $1 million weekly losses in San Francisco. There are doubtless other bleeders we don't even know about. It's tough to hear, but make no mistake: Some papers will go out of business.
Yes, this is scary stuff. It's not getting better, and contrary to William Dean Singleton's cockeyed optimism, an improvement in the economy–whenever it comes–won't rescue many newspapers. The fundamental structural shifts in the industry's business model are too profound. Newspapers that emerge from this crucible will be leaner, less frequent and Web-centric–and they may not even be available in print. Some will survive, but some won't. That sounds pessimistic–but I haven't talked to anyone recently who follows the industry closely and sees it any different. Everybody agrees: The next few months will be bloody–bloodier than anyone could have predicted even a few months ago. We're facing the beginning of the End of Dailies.
PS: Philip Meyer, who wrote "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age," comes to similar conclusions.