About Me

  • I've spent more than 25 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies and startups. You can read more about me here.

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« The Yahoo Watch | Main | NewspapeRx, Revisited »

June 26, 2008


Tish Grier

Hi Mark...

another thing you might want to add to the list is Failing to build their brand and market themselves properly. The rules of marketing have changed as well as because of social media, and I've seen little from the newspaper industry to address how they market their product and build their brand. Even if you've had a brand that's been around for 100 or so years, there's always brand management to be accomplished and new marketing strategies to implement.

Some try to do this with communities...but communities on a newspaper will be thought of differently and used differently, than a community established by Proctor and Gamble to promote a product.

And I've always agreed that someone like Zell (if it isn't Zell) will come up with the new biz model. Yeah, he might be messing up in ways now, but that's part and parcel to innovating. Which is why I now understand why so many in marketing go berserk when someone actually gets success with all this social media stuff!

adela rogers st. john

Excuse me, business model? Zell is slashing and burning the talent and heart right out of newspapers. Design innovation? I think USA Today did what the tribune is doing --- about 10 years ago!

It wasn't the rank and file that got the Tribune into debt. It was those executives -- the people who left with the $10 million golden parachute like scott smith.

Can you put out a newspaper with a streamlined staff and costs? Sure. But it will be vending machine food for the mind --empty calories and flabby thinking. Just plunk in your money -- you can get the same bag of news in Miami, New York or Kokomo.


i (and a few others) have been saying forever that newspapers have been cutting their own throats, and your analysis pretty much supports that idea.

giving away their most important assett -- content, the expertise accompanying their news coverage -- on the internet obviously has been foolish. why would anybody pay for a newspaper when they can get it free online? do they think readers are stupid? car dealers do not give away cars to sell accessories and service.

also, i have long been appalled at how poorly newspapers have marketed themselves. if coca-cola were as bad at marketing itself as newspapers have been, coca-cola would not exist.


Great roundup and beyond depressing.


I hear constantly about how newspapers have 'failed,' and there's obviously something to it, but this also this reality: The Internet is splintering big mass market publications of all types into smaller, more targeted publications. There's not a thing in the world newspaper companies can do about that. They just have many new competitors and are being nibbled to death by ducks.

Also, the "we should have made people pay" argument is so tiresome and false. Newspapers have never charged people for the news; they've charged to help subsidize the cost of delivery and printing (and the price of newspapers has never entirely covered those expenses). The real money in newspapers has always been in advertising, which is right where it is online as well -- and online publishing slashes the cost of printing and delivery to smithereens.

And somehow every other form of news media makes its bones by giving away the product and selling ads. Yet I constantly hear this tired, played-out "we should have charged money" argument.


Mark -- IMO, there can't be reform and reconstruction until the front offices are cleared out at most of these newspapers. But these captains of industry seem determined to go down with their ships. I bet they will be the last on board, hoarding their six-figure salaries and stock benefits.
This period has produced some truly classic miscalculations, but the one that is most memorable to me is the idea peddled in front offices a few years back that content is overrated, and readers really don't pay that much attention to newspaper content. The American Press Institute and industry consultants fueled this belief, urging management to transform reporters into what were called "content providers" stressing multi-media skills and spending more time on finding graphics for their stories, etc., than writing. Then when the economy went south, it was only natural that the content providers were the first to go, with buyouts taking out the most experienced, street smart, and often most productive of the lot.
So now we have offices filled with empty cubicles, except the front offices where editors, managing editors and bureau chiefs rule over the remaining two or three fresh-faced reporters working at startup pay grades. Newspapers now are locked in a death spiral of less content leading to less advertisements, leading to more layoffs, leading even to less content. I don't know why the API experts and the industry consultants couldn't see that the prime reason readers buy and read newspapers is content and yes, NEWS, and that in the new Internet age, content, quality and interesting content, and lots of it is king.
Many of the people I talk to agree with me, and say they are turning to Internet versions of the New York Times and Washington Post in search of news they need that their local papers no longer provide. Look at the statistics, and the Times, the Post and England's Guardian are in the top 100 of daily Internet hits. What do they have in common? Quality news. (It surprised me to find no U.S. TV networks made the top 100 Internet hit sites, but the BBC did.) People aren't reading these papers on the Internet for the ads they contain.
You have greater hope than I that someone is going to figure this out. I think it is way too late and the business is collapsing, and the front offices are only interested in devising a way to get the business back by hiring more sales personnel. This is a generation of editors and newspaper leaders that has no ideas, the ultimate collection of Peter principle ass-kissers promoted to jobs way over the heads. The tragedy is that families are going to hurt and be broken by the monumental mistakes this generation of newspaper leaders made.


Responding to kob:
"Newspapers have never charged people for the news.."
Yes, they did in the 19th Century. Take a look at pre-World War II papers and you will find papers that were sold on the news they contained, and with very few ads or classified ads. Also take a look at British newspapers, which sell on the basis of circulation with comparatively (to the U.S.) few ads.


Re: Frobozz comment -- "There's not a thing in the world newspaper companies can do about that." That sort of not-our-fault attitude is why I left my newsroom in 2000. The world changes, and successful companies have to adapt. Or die.

Case in point: Newspapers should have stopped printing stock tables by 2001 at the very latest. It's exactly the kind of commoditized, fast-changing information that is perfect for the Web and was only appropriate in newspapers because they were the best option available at the time. Instead, we still read about papers that are only doing in now and the reaction is always the same. The executives think they're so smart by "adapting" (no, you've already missed the boat) and industry purists decry losing any content they think a paper should carry (News flash: the New York Times used to carry freight shipping schedules listing what ships arrived in port when.)

As the market(s) changed, newspapers and their function needed to change with them. Most did not, and we are seeing the results.

Brian Cubbison

What kind of newspaper could you create with 900 journalists? Or would you create 900 newspapers?

recovering female journalist

Mark -- I agree with everything you say here and have been saying it myself for years (I did a slow exit from the business, retraining as a web developer while still working as a copy editor).

Just want to add one other blind spot in newspaper/MSN that certainly has added to the downfall (perhaps not the main reason, but yet another factor): There is almost no diversity in newsrooms anywhere. Still about 90 percent white males. Women are still stuck in the features departments (formerly known as the "women's pages"). There are hardly any non-caucasians working at papers. Thirty years ago that may have been understandable (but not acceptable), but , hello!, this is 2008... it's just embarrassing and horrifying. Why would a huge portion of Americans read anything by people who have very little in common with them. And why would women and minorities go into newspaper work when there is a glass ceiling so low they can barely get in the door?

Yes, it is a tragedy, but they can't say some of us didn't try to tell them so.

TV may have killed radio, but arrogance killed newspapers.


I, too, am weary of hearing the "we're giving content away" mantra.

The arrogance that truly believes people will stand for paid online content is the same arrogance that insists we, still, are the gatekeepers of information. While they zealously guard the gate, they've not noticed that the rest of the world has trampled down the fence.


had no idea there WERE that many newspaper jobs. anyway hang in there guys, I'm sure your publishers will sort this mess out soon!

Rick Merrill

The newspaper industry is going through its version of the Ice Age. The old-line managers and scribes are slowly being pushed off the cliff or are dying in their chairs. The industry won't change until the purge is complete.

DESPITE all the evidence, the print side of newspapers still believes they produce a "higher form" of journalism; newsrooms treat the "online folks" as if they were the hired help and only allowed into the building through the rear entrance. It's insane.

The top papers, Wall St. Journal, NY Times and W. Post, all have tremendous online ventures. But that crackheads on the print side will not acknowledge that the journalists working on the Web site are worthy of the same status they enjoy.

I know, it's ludicrous... but if such discrimination is evident among the rank and file, how much more of a colored view does management have?

The industry has to purge; we are witness to that history.

chicago insider

Mark Potts is dead-on with his observations. The comments by adela rogers st. john might make sense were it not for the truth of the Tribune newsroom: copy editors sitting around for half their shift playing online backgammon; page designers working on a single page for an entire 8-hour day -- and not a vibrant display page, just a run of the mill inside news page ( the kind designers at smaller papers churn out 6 or 8 at a time); metro editors who espouse "Tribune-caliber" when rejecting reporter candidates yet don't even know where Bridgeport or Highland Park are. This can't all be blamed on business-side executive-level management failing to grasp the shifts, now seismic in nature, of the media landscape. A fair amount of credit for the failure of newspapers rests in the hands of equally blind, equally arrogant upper-level editors who allowed their newsrooms to bloat and languish. Today, they cry about the impact on democracy or the impact on quality coverage, yet you could take a machete through a newsroom like that and lop off dozens, if not a hundred, heads and literally lose nothing. Sam Zell may not have a plan, and whatever innovations his Tribune puts out may not stick, but what he's doing in that operation needs to be done.

adela rogers st. johns

Regarding Zell's comments on CNBC: How will relying on 8-year-old data from focus groups take the Tribune Co. into the future?

Tim Thornton

One element contributing to the demise newspapers seems to be missing from the discussion.
Newspapers are still making money, lots of money. They're just not making as much money as the people collecting it wish they would. For decades, newspapers had a rate of return four times the typical Fortune 500 company's. They wanted five. If some of that cash had been invested in dealing with a changing world or even in (gasp!) journalism, armageddon might not be here.

adela rogers st. johns

Don't fool yourselves. Zell didn't get in this to save newspapers. He got in it to make money, lots of it -- one way or the other.

King Friday

Why try to save the dinosaurs? Be a mammal.


Ed and Adela have it right. Zell is no innovator. He's slashing from the roots, leaving behind wan content gussied up to look flashy like an Internet page (the BORELANDO model). USA Today tried, about four decades late, to look like TV. They still give away their paper to disinterested readers in hotels, and Gannett's stock hit an all-time low last week. Meanwhile, real content, local or otherwise, is being starved into non-existence and entire VERY LOCAL newspapers are dying. We didn't listen to readers' groups? WHAT?! We were swayed by every last sneeze, none of which worked. The Los Angeles Times once was a highly regionalized paper with multiple editions stuffed with local news and pages of briefs, with all kinds of "niche" approaches to both advertisers and readers. It was an expensive endeavor that got little result. So we pulled back. Now we're supposed to expand again, go micro in a circulation area the size of Ohio, and provide more content to a website that, incidentally, still can't figure out how to make money, all with less staff. Wake up! This is a giant joke played by riverboat gamblers like Zell, who don't give a damn about readers, information, new media or anything else but their private planes and Harley-Davidson phallo-mobiles. He's covering his losses through side deals every time he 'sells' a Tribune asset, and soon will be gambling with the house money. He'll sell the Cubs, the real estate and wave goodbye, let the whole thing spiral into bankruptcy court. That's innovative? No, that's throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Dave Lenderking

A lot of what I read here seems to be true. But , as for me , and a number of my friends who I have discussed the newspaper demise with have all said we are not about to look at our computer and read the news while drinking our morning coffee. We want a paper - paper that we can read and turn the pages on. I look for content in a paper and the articles in it.


I am a 22-year-old newspaper reporter and I read the news on my computer while drinking my morning coffee.

People like me are putting newspapers out of business. But it's hard to ignore the fact that newspapers' websites are free and interactive while the print editions are not.

Arnold Mason

I can't believe there are any fresh-faced youngsters still willing to get into this business. Unless they consider it a stepping stone to a job that has some kind of future. Or they're just complete morons.

Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Despite all the whining at the L.A. Times about staff cuts -- and I use the LAT as an example only because I can toss in a personal anecdote here -- back when I was a kid (early 60s) my mother was one of their two "Orange County stringers" and took me up to the main Times newsroom a couple of times, the Times newsroom was small enough that she could introduce me to everyone who worked there.

I don't think they had but 60 or 70 reporters and maybe 20 editors, total, back then. And many years later -- think 1986 -- when I asked an old editor at the Baltimore Sun if I should try to get on as a staff writer there, he said, "You wouldn't like it. Our maw is not hungry. We have hundreds of people who sit on their ass and play politics, where we used to have 60 or 80 who put out copy all day. You would have liked it back then, but now? Takes two reporters and three editors to do what one reporter used to do. Stay freelance." (Which I did -- and I'm glad.)

People, reporting and editing used to be blue-collar jobs for hard workers who LIKED BEING NOSY AND WRITING COLORFUL COPY. Now the news business is full of college kids who think of themselves as "professionals" and cry like babies when they're asked to work half as hard as your average car mechanic or short-order cook.

My mother put out tons of copy on a Remington typewriter and used GLUE to "cut and paste" stories together if she screwed up. She used a Speed Graphic camera with manual focus and carried a light meter to get her exposures more-or-less right. (Yes, back then LAT stringers were expected to take their own photos. Ditto when she went on staff at Orange County Business Magazine in 1963.)

Now I sit here with a handy-dandy laptop computer. I own digital still and video cameras that have auto-focus and auto-exposure and auto-wipe-your-ass and all kinds of other features my mother would have cried to have -- and that *I* would have cried to have when I first started shooting news film and editing it with a Moviola (and sometimes "by eye and by gosh" with a razor blade on a little frame).

Next topic: Thank God for the Internet!

I say this because self-trained, work-all-night misfits like me are not wanted by today's "paper" papers, and it gives us a place to ply our trade.

And on that note, let's go back to the idea of colorful copy. You don't see much of it in most papers. An editor who helped me learn how to write reader-pleasing stories once told me, "A real writer can come up with an interesting description of a blank white wall."

Report like mad. Write good. Write interesting. Do it in a newspaper, on a blog, on a bathroom wall. The medium is not as much of the message as the story itself. Maybe you'll need to drive a cab while you figure out how to make a living telling cool stories. (I drove a cab for a number of years and liked it!) But there is always a market for a good storyteller, even if it's in the market square, begging people to toss coins into a hat before you tell them the next installment of your latest saga.

Forget being a "perfeshinul jernilest." They ain't no such thing. We're storytellers. We told stories around campfires in return for scraps of meat. We told stories in market squares and passed hats. We told stories in hand-typeset, hand-printed broadsheet newspapers -- and often did our own typesetting and printing, too. (Mark Twain sure did!)

Now we use computers and high-definition video cameras and slick video editing software and database-driven websites. But nothing has changed. We are still no better than our last story, and if we don't ENTERTAIN and ENLIGHTEN our audiences they will drift away.

It's obviously time for another drink. So I will stop typing and pour myself one -- and it'll be real, he-man, puts-hair-on-your-chest* rye whiskey, too, which I suspect not a single college-kid "professional journalist" has ever tasted, but I happen to know Mike Royko liked a whole bunch.

- Robin 'Roblimo' Miller
Editor in Chief, SourceForge, Inc.

* You need to have seen the 1946 Mighty Joe Young -- http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041650/ -- to understand the full flavor of this comment.


amen, amen, amen. mark potts is right on. the arrogance of many of the folks at newspapers always floored me. most of them didn't get it when i was there, and now the chickens are comin' home to roost.

Brad A. Greenberg

What saddens me most is how rarely non-journalists even care.


Incredible comment from Roblimo with nary a response. That in and of itself is sad. When I worked as a copy editor, I took a close look at the newsroom and the evolution from blue-collar to white-collar was incredibly obvious to me -- you could see it from gazing at the few beaten-up old-timers ("failures" by the modern generation's way of looking at these things: who would still want to be out there on the beat at 55 years of age?) to the younger reporters the janitorial staff called "los perfumados".

The idea that people could get pensions, 401ks, health and dental coverage from doing this was a pipe-dream two generations ago. Someone sold you folks a bill of goods and you swallowed it -- this was never meant to be an upwardly mobile career in the material sense. How many of you were ever in the army? How many of you could walk into a working class (sorry, poor white trash) bar and carry on a conversation? How can you possibly talk about covering "local news" when you don't come from the people, much less know them?

And no, non-journalists don't care. They don't like us. Why should they? If you haven't noticed, we're somewhere between lawyers and congress in opinion polls.

This has been coming a long time, and if Sam Zell didn't exist, we'd invent him.

Nate Legue

I have to laugh because my 60K-circ daily just cut staff through buyouts and now we have 11 editors supervising 22 reporters. Exactly ZERO editors took the buyouts. Why should they when they attend meetings all day and have approximately four hours of real work?

Nate Legue

I can't let jackparsons' comment go without a response. Some of us whippersnappers DID get into this business the old-fashioned way. I didn't have a college degree when I started writing obits; I got that later because it was REQUIRED to become a reporter. And I'll put my blue-collar cred up against any of the old timers out there: short order cook, janitor, machinist, dishwasher, brush hauler and air freight loader to name a few.
And yeah, I did figure out this isn't an upwardly mobile career. So I'm leaving. It doesn't make sense to earn a degree, then slave away for decades only to retire and eke out a living on Social Security. I could've done that without the student loan debt...

scared journalist

To Brian,

Yes women are still in features, so am I and making a whole lot less then some of my fellow news writers. I will say though it is also a mistake to think that the features are useless. That's one of the problems the industry has always had. Sure many can write the when, what, where and how, but those who are wordsmiths and can carve out an interesting story are often not respected in newsrooms and paid less.
During a survey that my paper paid a lot for and are only starting to listen to it several years later, it was determined that the readers loved the features. It was number 1 on the survey. It's this local daily's bread and butter.
As far as diversity goes. My newspaper tried really hard, but in the end the minorities just aren't there. Hey, why should they be when the average reporter is taking a vow of poverty at maybe $33,000 a year. Newspapers will only survive if they fold the paper part of it and charge for the web. They missed the boat once, but they can't afford to miss the lifeboat trailing behind.
I agree with John, it's sad that nonjournalists don't care or worse that they believe we are fine and making a mint when we can't even afford the rent.


No beef with you Nate, and no reason to believe you're not being truthful. From my experience, anyone with anything of a blue collar background beyond "working for a movers during summer break" was a very tiny minority (no pun intended, because they were, more often than not, also the minorities!)

If I were to say that Tejano music was marketed at Latinos, that'd also be true, despite the occasional black, white, yellow or green that gets into it.

As an example, two comments down. $33,000 is hard to live on, and damn awful if you don't have a second income with kids, but dear God, a vow of poverty?! Are you serious?! Again, Nate, per the BLS, that's more or less what frontline blue collar jobs make. I worked in construction for 4 years and didn't make that; my brother is still in the industry and didn't make it until he hit supervisor.

scared journalist

Jack just because your brother didn't make 33,000 until he made supervisor doesn't make it right.
Also consider, journalists deserve to live at least comfortably. The good ones are a rare bunch that can put together a story, from nothing usually, make it interesting while in my case also taking pictures, video and sending it all in on deadline. I have to tell you, I'm in the biz for more than a decade. I'm also a columnist and I don't make $33,000. I make less. Given just the price of gas and the amount we use (and get very little back) it's awful and it is poverty all things considered.
If papers would start putting more resources and revenue behind the people who make the product, the product would be better and the people working there WOULD be able to live in the neighborhoods they cover.


The fact has to be seen, if it were not for the newspapers being sold originally, the change over to internet would not have happend, and the successful nature of english papers the likes of the times etc would not have been so popular and seen as one of the top internet sites. Me myself would love to start a paper either for the newspaper stands or the internet, but the change in media has seen what is known as tabloid trash the likes of Zoo and Nuts magazines change the era of news and the up to date nature of not just newspapers but media in general, therefore individuals not only want media, they want media right now, fast, quick, with no hassles. I'm looking forward to the future of media, to see the changing shape within the next few years, because the two can exist, but which will remain the strongest the internet-paper or the tabloid-paper.


Mr. Potts has it about right. Newspapers aren't very far off from the music industry about missing the boat with digital age. And now have no way to make money. Yeah keep posting PDFs of the paper online or just post all the stories for free, that's gonna help circulation.

Having worked for a Zell Tribune paper, I must say it isn't the owner of the Tribune, but the newspapers themselves. I worked for one of the biggest newspapers in the chain, and I had never seen so much waste with manpower. I witnessed people SLEEPING on the job, lack of planning, people complaining when they had to read 12 stories a few nights("It's too much!! Usually the average copy editor read five) and basically hating the internet. And since they have been at the paper since the 60s, they are making near or over $100,000! For the most part, they just sit and watch TV for a couple of hours a night doing nothing constructive.

How are you going to be compete if you have these kinds of people working for you? You can't. So long newspapers.

P.S. I'm not a bitter ex-employee, I thank God I got out of that job. And most likely will never work in newspapers again.


Dear Robin:

If you are looking for an interesting place to do some writing, I would like to invite you to visit the new Paris Herald, at:


We would love to hear from you. There is so much going on in the world, and I hope we have a lot to offer in the daily arena. I know your readers would love to know where to find you, again.

Most cordially,

Jes Alexander, Editorial Director
The Paris Herald

Larry Clifton

Newspapers are too liberal, too editorial, and too biased. For example, reading the St. Pete Times editorial in Florida is like reading the DNC talking points. I'm going to pay for that? No... not ever. There are better sources for news than newspapers.


Newspapers didn't have to get crushed by Crag's List and Monster.com. Newspapers had something those websites didn't have -- a well known brand that people knew as reliable and trustworthy. If more newspapers would've gotten on the web sooner and offered classified services online, maybe they wouldn't have lost all of their classified revenue to large, national websites as quickly or as overwhelmingly as they did.

Online ads don't sell for nearly as much as print ads do, but I feel like if newspaper companies got on the web sooner, they could've helped shape how much those ads are worth.

Blogs seem to be a growing preferred method of getting news, too. I believe in old-school "just the facts" journalism and that it serves the people best, but maybe newspapers could've benefitted from having some reporters who had points of view. I feel wrong for saying it. But I think it's true.

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