With a new year ahead of us, everyone wishes 2020 was just a bad dream and the newspapers can regain a foothold looking for new opportunities after the pandemic. As the past year put a heavy strain on advertisers and our subscriber base, as well as the economy in general, many newspapers looked at consolidation, reduced printing days, cut pages, cut headcount, and more of the same “economies” that we have had to practice for several years .
It seems that the edition size no longer plays a role. Even larger properties like the Kansas City Star have shifted their pressure to external sources for efficiency gains. Numerous medium-sized items I’ve written about over the past year have been outsourced to external printers, and smaller publications also outsource printing.
There seems to be two options for all of us: to print or to be printed.
Then let’s look at some exceptions to the rules. One of the first that pops into my mind is the Villages Daily Sun in Florida. This property continues to grow your print product at a breakneck pace. The circulation seems to be on the up. They are in the process of setting up a new manufacturing facility, expanding their operations and moving forward as if it was 1970 again. What do they know that the rest of us don’t? What are you doing differently? I’m not entirely sure, but an obvious benefit is the audience. You seem to have the perfect mix of baby boomers still seeing the value of printing on paper and advertisers realizing that there is a broad readership who cares about the printed product as they shop. It’s an enviable place to be, but unfortunately not the place the rest of us seem to be heading towards.
Looking ahead to the New Year, I sadly believe that most of us will instead continue on the path of saving.
Last year was one that none of us will soon forget. The advertising base that we rely on for much of our sales has been challenged until we drop. Retail advertisers who have turned away from the pressure and explored the new world of digital advertising gave us high hopes that we had discovered a sustainable source of income, but many of our advertisers have been forced to close their doors due to the pandemic. Others have fewer hours and those fortunate enough to somehow stay open have seen their pedestrian traffic reduced beyond what anyone could have imagined. This perfect storm left little logical reason for our advertisers to advertise at all. As this source of income dwindled, many newspapers were left with limited alternatives.
There is no surprise here. I’m not telling any of you anything that you haven’t found out for yourself. The forecast for 2021 is frightening. Many of us will not recover and survive what happened in our industry in 2020.
Usually, I’ll make an optimistic comment at this point, but the reality is that maybe not all of us will. I kept saying that I love print and no part of it has changed. But where our industry is right now isn’t anything I’ve seen in my career and I’m really concerned.
While my predictions for 2021 aren’t everything, it’s not entirely bleak either.
Digital possibilities abound
Readers will always be out there, and the newspaper industry has put together one of the most professional and powerful reporting engines to attract them. From our small town newspaper reporters and photographers to newsroom teams at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, the list goes on. We offer readers factual and informative content that is provided with dynamic functions and difficult investigation reports to be found anywhere else. Regardless of how it appears in print, on a computer screen, or on a smartphone, newspapers offer an unprecedented product and service in a package that you cannot find anywhere else.
This is the main strength of our industry. It is the value that people see in our products. Years ago readers might have picked up our newspapers to buy goods and services, but a lot of that has changed. Quality journalism is selling more than ever.
The internet has lost our advertising dollars for many years and that only seems to get worse. I believe that digital doesn’t generate as much revenue as print, but we can grow this area of our business and support the key people in our news-gathering areas for years to come.
Industry leaders like WEHCO Media’s Walter Hussman are at the forefront after unveiling his iPad experiment, offering subscribers a free iPad with access to daily digital editions in his local Arkansas newspapers.
What about preprints?
Preprints have been hit hard in most newspapers due to COVID-19 and its impact on advertisers. I’ve spoken to several properties that suffered a 50-70 percent drop in preprints during the vacation.
With the digital growth in our industry, will advertisers add content to our print products once a week on Sunday or will they expand their own websites and find other ways to advertise to compensate for this?
Much depends on our ability to attract readers to our digital presentations. If we are able to maintain our quality newsrooms and deliver superior content to attract readers, there is no good reason why we cannot be the winners in the digital realm.
Commercial pressure grows
Moving on to the Operations, we return to my previous statement, “Print or be printed”. This will be an important decision for many of our properties in 2021. Those of us who have previously built or seen the light of day in our newspapers and are growing in this area have an advantage over those who simply print their own products without external printing contracts.
For most of the newspapers I’ve worked for during my career, we’ve expanded into advertising and provided the organization with a source of income that can support other areas of the operation and provide a cushion for our core products during some difficult times.
By printing off-site at your facility, you have a competitive advantage and can make the difference between being outsourced and printing for other companies that need to outsource their printing. I see it as the most reliable source of income for your entire business.
Having commercial printing in your home can help you grow the whole business. If you can somehow get around without them and still print your core products, you probably won’t be adding new equipment in 2021, but if you can grow your advertising and get positive cash flow as a result. Chances are your company may be more likely to invest in capital projects and provide the necessary equipment to expand commercial opportunities. It’s a win / win for operations.
Find the talent
Despite the fact that most of us continue to reduce our workforce and / or assign multiple responsibilities to individuals in order to save, I still find finding skilled, long-term, committed employees to be one of the biggest challenges in our industry.
Many of our post offices pay minimum or low hourly wages, no part-time benefits, and require shift hours that are not ideal. In many of our newspapers it is difficult to find reliable and qualified employees. We often lose good employees to other job opportunities that offer better wages, benefits, or full-time employment. This can often lead to staff shortages and the need for more expensive temporary help from an agency. This inexperienced temporary work usually works slower and less productively and costs us even more in the long run.
When it comes to skilled production workers like press operators, prepress technicians, or IT, things can get even more difficult. Paying doesn’t seem like that much of a challenge, but experience and retention can be. When newspapers shrink or go under, one would think that the market would be overcrowded with skilled production workers looking for a job. The problem I saw with this is that so many skilled manufacturing professionals have been grappling with layoffs, downsizing, takeovers, transfers and the constant financial challenges of our industry that they have simply made the decision to move to other industries. I’ve tried to reinstate a lot of these people only to hear they aren’t interested.
I believe this trend will not only continue through 2021, it will get worse over time. When was the last time you heard a 20 year old press representative say he wanted to do this for the rest of his career? We used to offer the right people a predictable opportunity for growth, expansion and a wonderful career. The operators wanted to learn about printing and be the best at what they do so that they could look forward to a long and rewarding career. At some point that changed and now it seems like working for a newspaper just isn’t as enticing as it used to be.
We will continue to “save”
Early in my career, a wise publisher told me, “Jerry, we will never go our way to prosperity.” I seriously wonder if the same publisher could support this theory in our current newspaper economy.
Call it what you will – manage expenses, cut costs, save, cut costs, and so on. In the coming year, we will continue to do what we have done and must do for the last decade to survive. We’re going to get rid of marginal publications, tighten news holes until it hurts, reduce paging, reduce circulation, and reduce staff.
But there is still hope
In that capacity, I’ve delivered some gloom and doom, and it wasn’t my usual optimistic writing, but it is our reality. I just don’t want to end on this note. To do so would be an injustice to an industry that I love and that I will support until the end (which I believe will be quite a while yet).
I think there are opportunities as we approach 2021. The economy will recover, the pandemic will recede and confidence in our will to succeed will triumph. Given the strength of our news organizations, we will be in an excellent position to benefit from this renewed growth. If we play our cards right, we can actually see a big boom in 2021.
Jerry Simpkins has over 30 years of experience in the printing and newspaper industries. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.