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Commentary

This wolf call is real

Newspapers have been crying "wolf" at least since the 1930s when they tried to persuade the government to block radio stations from carrying any news.

But now the wolf really is at the door. Or wolves.

With hundred-channel cable and satellite and gazillion-site Internet, VCRs, DVDs and video games all grasping for our leisure time -- no newspaper can hope to keep the market share it held as little as 30 years ago.

John McManus

Add the time-strain of both spouses working and commuter jams. The competition for the public's attention is fiercer than ever. Newspapers even compete against themselves, offering their stories free on the Web.

As a result, the proportion of subscribing households is plummeting.

Advertising, which accounts for more than 75% of total newspaper revenue, is also under siege. The most profitable ads -- the classifieds -- are fleeing to Craigslist, e-Bay and Monster. A recent report carried by the International Newspaper Marketing Association said Craigslist alone had cost Bay Area newspapers $65 million annually in employment ads. The Macys and Albertsons that buy display ads are losing business to Costco and Wal-Mart, which rarely advertise.

Finally, corporate executives are flogging exhausted newsrooms to maintain the extraordinary profits of the last quarter century. Leaner news staffs share reporting burdens with corporate siblings. The San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, for example, are now relying on each other's sports and Sacramento bureau reporters. And editors desperate for circulation are following the common appetite rather than leading public discourse.

You can feel the strain in recent circulation scandals, with newspaper execs inflating the number of eyeballs they sell to advertisers. You can see it in the turnover of newspaper publishers. Three new faces in four years at both the San Francisco Chronicle and Mercury News.

Newspapers are based on economies of scale. Most costs -- of news-gathering, the fleet of delivery trucks, the hundred million dollar press -- are fixed. They don't fall when the paper is dropped at every fifth house instead of every other.

Democracy's most reliable companion, the one so important it was written into the Constitution, is really in trouble this time.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights

THE GROWTH OF FREE NEWSPAPERS

The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash

FATE OF KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...

KQED-FM AUDIO PERSPECTIVES BY JOHN MCMANUS

Leakers and plumbers: There's no difference between a good leak and a bad leak? Journalists need a shield law. 11/22/05
Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05

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