The Death of the Newspaper

I know the travails of the Salt Lake Tribune and then smaller papers like the Daily Herald in Provo and the Ogden Examiner don’t seem directly LDS related. However all these papers, along with the Deseret News, tend to cover religious topics. It’s worth discussing what’s going on.

Saying the problems of newspapers don’t matter seems unsupportable. Just in the last year the Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of issues on the Honor Code Office, rape, and malpractice by the BYU campus police. This in turn led to policy changes on campus. Likewise the recent story about Joseph Bishop allegedly raping a missionary while MTC President was a story largely developed by both the Tribune and local television news. I think it safe to say that even if you don’t care for the presentation the Tribune does on LDS related stories, it does break a lot of stories the Deseret News doesn’t.

This week has seen significant layoffs at all three papers including long popular writers in areas like sports. It’s worth noting that Utah is hardly unique in this. Papers all across the nation have been facing downsizing. It’s completely understandable why journalists would emphasize the important social job they do. While I’ve often been critical of Tribune stories, the reality is that they serve an important role of keeping the Church accountable, letting us know what is going on, and bringing attention to problems that might get neglected.[1]

Fundamentally there are two problems. The first is that it turned out newspapers economically were primarily classified businesses with some advertising. News, while helping to increase distribution, was almost akin to a charity operation funded by the classifieds. With the rise of the internet, ventures like Craig’s List or eBay largely killed the classified business.[2] That business is never going to return which means newspapers just can’t pay the salaries or keep the staff they once did.

Free or low cost competition didn’t immediately put newspapers out of business entirely. Ads in the papers continued as older subscribers continued to read the newspaper. However with the rise of smart phones and tablets, more and more people read their news online. Further the online ads paid out far less than print ads had done a decade earlier. As readership aged, profits decreased.

The second problem for newspapers was competition. The prime reporting that people care about isn’t necessarily local but national and international news. The Deseret News or Salt Lake Tribune in those cases now are competing with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and even England’s The Guardian. Since everyone reads online, that competition is just fundamentally different from what was present a decade or two earlier. Both papers try to deal with this by publishing commentary from other papers and of course they get wire news as well. It only goes so far though. Further in Utah we unusually have even more competition with two major newspapers in a very small market. There’s also smaller local papers like the Provo Daily Herald that also cover the same role.

Oversupply is thus the fundamental issue for local papers. The local papers will never do national and international coverage as well as the national papers. For those who actually do care a lot about local coverage you have several newspapers plus all the television stations. So there are alternatives. For the amount of people interested in local news there’s just too many reporters and not enough money.

This day has been coming ever since people started using Craig’s List and eBay. It’s a question of when, not if, Utah newspapers start folding or amalgamating. Further TV news viewership is also suffering. I suspect TV news will go the way of newspapers as younger people get all their news by way of phones and tablets. Effectively TV news has already become newspapers for most. Rather that getting a Fox13 story off of TV people primarily see it on a web page. Ads on television as opposed to internet ads on web pages will decrease as fewer and fewer watch TV decreasing its value.

Newspapers just are dying. Whatever survives will be a shell of what the media landscape looked like even a decade ago. The hope of some is that local Utah news will find a savior the way billionaire Jeff Bezos saved The Washington Post. Some assumed Huntsman, who owns the Tribune, was just such a savior. I think recent events have poured cold water on that. The reality is that the Wall Street Journal is able to bring in far more money than the Tribune could ever hope to. Journalism is expensive and good coverage needs that financing.

All of this is a long introduction to the main question. How does this affect religion coverage? TV news does cover religion, but rarely as in depth as the newspapers and often with a more sensationalist slant. What will happen? Probably a lot more superficial religious coverage that amounts to little more than press releases or snippets from speakers at events. More punditry, which is cheap, rather than investigative journalism, which is expensive.

Is that good? I don’t think so. I think journalists, whatever their biases, can bring out problems that are lurking beneath the surface that leaders may not notice.

The reality is though, that the chances of there being more than one newspaper in the state 10 years from now are pretty remote. What’s remarkable isn’t that newspapers are dying. It’s that particularly in Utah they’ve lasted this long.

1. I just wish that stories wouldn’t have that annoying tendency to interview people of a particular theological/political view and ignore the many people with more typical Utah views or even people with less popular views that aren’t the reporters. While the facts are almost always right, there often is a slant in how the story is framed. Although to be fair, Deseret News isn’t as apt to quote interviews with those who disagree with Church policy. So both papers have their biases.

2. KSL created their own online classified site which I believe in Utah managed to maintain a lot of the classified business. However the profits were quite different.

10 comments for “The Death of the Newspaper

  1. As a journalist and current co-owner a magazine publishing company, the writing has been on the wall for at least two decades. Magazines are follow the same path, just a few years further behind. There are two additional fundamental problems not addressed in the OP: (1) The rise of partisanship and (2) the increasingly fragmented audience.

    In many respects, we’ve gone back to the 19th century journalism business model, where news organizations were agenda-driven and hyper partisan. (Objective news reporting arose with movie news reels.) To be informed, one must be a jurist, listen carefully to both sides, and make a ruling. It’s simply a sign of the times that the most popular cable news outlets are also the most opinionated.

    The problem of the fragmented audience is a repeat of the 1950s, when the general interest publications (Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post) folded. With the internet, readers can be so specific that it’s virtually impossible to make a print model work. For instance, Playboy is unable to cater to every reader’s fetish, but the internet sure can, and it does.

    The struggle for survival is something every print media executive in the developed world is trying to resolve, and while there are a host of business models (all free content. vs all paid content vs. some of each vs. a limited number of articles every month. Or paid reporters vs. volunteers vs. editors cherry-picking prewritten blog content) none seems to be sustainable.

    I’m interested in others’ reactions.

  2. I think what you call fragmentation I was getting at by oversupply. What the internet did effectively is give everyone a printing press. The cost of entry was ridiculously low. Thus the rise of blogs. Those have, for the most part, fallen by the wayside due to even more fragmentation with Facebook and to a degree Twitter.

    It’s great for those who like information in some ways, but what we’ve seen are huge incentives towards “yellow journalism” with an emphasis on sensationalism. That in turn often caters towards telling people what they want to hear and an orientation towards groups. Not just partisanship. I think we’re seeing catering to subgroups of each political coalition. Further outside of news journalism you have entertainment and other types of news where each person can have their desires completely catered to. And outrage by a headline gets people to click long enough to get some ad revenue. At the same time the ads become more sensationalist and sexual as well.

  3. Remember when editors were the hidden watchdogs of journalism? No editors, no vetting of information. I grew to trust Wikipedia because there were watchdogs, and valid citations.

    Linkedin provides some good professional insight, but the same one-note responses I see in FB show up in LinkedIn comments.

    Confirmation bias rules social media as a news source, but that’s not much different than print news used to be. Tech changes, but humans really don’t, at least not upstairs.

  4. I do not have the keen understanding of this topic to say much. I would like to speculate that the recent presidential election fiasco was the result of a failure of the mechanisms in our society once performed by newspapers in their role as the fourth branch of the government and responsible balanced journalism.

    For me it goes a long ways to explaining how both political parties managed to dredge up about the worst candidate possible. The masses were left holding there nose and voting against a candidate who deserved to lose, on both sides of the aisle.

    For a church that has taken a mud bath with the emergence of the internet, I think that technology driving the fragmentation of the news and other information in the future might make it easier to go back to hiding our history and ignoring the skeletons in the closet.

  5. I’d probably disagree that the Church has taken a bath with the internet. Our population, at least in the US, has remained fairly consistent as a percent of the population. Around 1.4 – 1.6% depending upon what poll you look at. Given that the US has been increasing in population at around 1% per year that’s pretty good. Maybe not as good as some expect given rapid growth in the 70’s or early 80’s, but I’m not sure that growth was sustainable. Much of it came from “low hanging fruit” because so many people had never heard of us.

    To the parties, interestingly most Democrats I know liked Clinton and can’t understand why Republicans were so upset at her. Her win was more akin to how Romney won the nomination in 2012. The challengers were weak and a lot of work had been done with party heads well before the formal nomination process. Had she faced Joe Biden or an other candidate stronger than Bernie I think she may well have lost the nomination. But she had shored up most of those people prior to the formal process starting.

    On the right, I think Trump knew how to ride populist anger that had been growing since the late 90’s in a way none of the other candidates did. I also think many on the right had come to distrust so-called mainstream media due to a certain bias. But the bigger deal was the corruption of right wing media by people who were mainly concerned with money (IMO). Throw in the mainstream media giving Trump a huge amount of free press in the primaries, often drowning out other voices, for their own ratings. While I think they were primarily ratings driven, I also think for some they thought Trump would make it easier for Clinton to win compared to say a Rubio. However the fact it came down to Trump and Cruz, both populist candidates of a sort, strongly suggests that it was populist anger that drove the election over more traditional establishment candidate.

    I’m really skeptical that was due to the collapse of newspapers. However it is possible that overcompetition and poor ad rates drove conservative pundit media to tell people what they wanted rather than criticize Trump. I think you saw that explicitly in people like Limbaugh for instance. In some, like Hannity I think that was more expected. But it was surprising how many pundits policies shifted 180° to fit in with whatever Trump was saying right then. When that happens it’s hard not to think the poor market for media was driving them to have listeners/viewers. Those that didn’t tended to lose their shows.

    That’s somewhat different from the collapse of more mainstream media. That said though you see the same issues in cable news which will collapse soon. The pundit shows (which are the main money makers) are getting more extreme but the viewers are all dying off of old age. The under 40 market tends to ignore cable news suggesting big collapses soon.

  6. I wonder if the emergence of the Intellectual Dark Web styled youtube and Quillette journalism is further sealing the fate of traditional news sources. It is very hard for journalists to compete against seasoned academics on technical and sociologically sophisticated topics. (Just look at Jordan Peterson’s success). The writing may not be as good, but the content and scientific “seal of authority” more than compensates for this.*

    Part of this is because these new sources enable a bifurcation between click-bait level readers and deep-thinkers. Thus CNN, Fox and others are all but trapped into click bait dynamics. Local news can’t work in the scales needed for either click-bait or deep thinking competition. Additionally, academic/scientific imprimatur is an irresistible draw in our current state of moral flux and lack of societal-level moral arbiters.

    From another angle, this “Dark Web” dynamic seems to be solidifying rationalism/rule-of-law as a preferred unit of social cohesion. That’s sort of what you expect from the cultural evolutionary dynamics. Of course, who knows how far this type of shadow system will actually go.

    But, I think the academic “seal of authority” is where many of the battles will be taking place. Thus, the outright war you’ve got right now between “objectivists” and “critical theorists”. They’re ultimately fighting over imprimitur power (and how that then controls the landscape in which the impending moral re-freezing soldifies)

    *I’d note, the role of Joe Rogans seem to challenge things here. Like Dave Rubin, he’s neither an academic nor click baiter. But they both have enough of a hook to let the pop-academics do their thing.

  7. I think the so called intellectual dark web is just not well known enough to matter much (despite Peterson having a bestselling book). However in general alternative new sites that have people more specialized in various fields from science to arms control probably each takes a tiny hit.

    Jader, what about local NPR?

  8. Clark, while the intellectual dark web isn’t well known and doesn’t matter that much to the population as a whole, I suspect it has the reach of enough significant network nodes to substantially influence things. For instance, Elon Musk’s semi-satirical joke about crowd-sourcing a journalistic fact checker to compete with snopes & polifact almost certainly came from Eric Weinstein’s personal proximity (he’s his financial manager). Weinstein & the others are no dopes on how to leverage networks… It may not involve brute force like the (hegemonic) legacy media, but there’s lots of dynamics energy available for anyone who can congeal the new (pluralistic) center.

    The main question seems to be around what type of morals the new middle will congeal.

    My bet is on it being much more pluralistic than anything before. And, I think the degree of pluralism will shock many intersectional racial identitarians The intellectual toolkit required to understand the features of this pluralism will probably exceed the capacity of many journalists. Look how well journalists tend to fare against any of the current dark webbers… Only Klein has held his own. And even then it was in terms of an obvious Gordian knot Harris knowingly walked into. The technicality of informational gate keeping is, in my opinion, poised for a major phase change…

  9. My personal view is that until the media marketplace stabilizes we’ll remain in a largely populist period with all the downsides that has. The media market is stabilizing a bit but honestly a lot of newspapers, classic magazines and the like will have to fail for that stability to arise. There’s just too many sites competing right now.

    To me asking about the various factions and how they’ll affect media seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Which ones dominate will likely have as much to do with accident as anything related to their particular ideology. As I said, a lot has to fail and journalism needs to get on its economic feet. The reason journalism is so bad is in large part due to the current economic tensions. I don’t want to say that’s all that is going on, but the incentives for sensationalism and to “preach to the narrative” are strong. They’re combined with the loss of real practical editors and fact checkers.

    I’d be shocked if things change anytime soon.

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