How I know that newspapers are dead

After I started blogging in December about the onrushing death of the newspaper industry — as exemplified by the shrinkage, corporate-wise, of the Times-Dispatch and its parent, Media General — I continued to think about the topic a great deal. So much so, in fact, that I had the idea to write a proposal for a nonfiction book, which, after a week of writing, I sent to my agent.

She got back to me not long after that and told me, bluntly, that the book would never sell to a mainstream house.

Why not?

People aren’t buying newspapers today, she told me . . . so who would buy a book about newspapers?

While that fact is increasingly significant, I still thought it was a good idea. 48 million people read a newspaper every day, and that doesn’t count the millions of readers of a few thousand community weekly papers — and a large number of American who don’t read any papers at all, but are interested in business, the economy, futurism, and publishing.

I can try to get another agent who might believe in the book – hell, I got Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and NYT bestselling author Edna Buchanan to agree to write the foreword for me – but then I started thinking about a less traditional publishing route, where I could capitalize on publishing on the Web and stir up some viral word of mouth.

Yesterday I contacted Jeff Jarvis, the guy who wrote What Would Google Do? and who has a blog all about journalism, technology and the death/rebirth of news, and I asked for his advice — is there a venue on the Web where a book like this could be published, maybe week by week, and raise not only public interest, but some money? Is there a venue where a potential publisher could see it?

His response, like my agent’s, was brutally honest.

No. There isn’t a market for a book about a dying industry.

He had already tried to market a book of his own, and his publisher didn’t even want to hear about it.


If Jeff couldn’t sell his book, then what chance would I, a mere 14-year veteran of ad sales and marketing, ever have?

If you’re even remotely interested, the introduction is here. I based it on a blog post about the RTD ten months ago, but I’ve expanded it and opened it up, setting the stage for the rest of the now-dead book which was to be about the potential reinvention of the industry.

Here’s the title:



A Tough Love Guide to Kick Newspapers Off Their Brontosaurian Asses and Into the 21st Century . . . or Die

Oh well. Thank you anyway, Jeff — I appreciate your honesty.

So it’s time to put this project behind me and ramp it up with the novel. My agent wants rewrites, and I agree.

More than I ever wanted to admit, it’s time to cut. It’s time to sing.

It’s time to leave the past — and the dead — behind.

RTD takes a hint from Web forums

They’re adding guest columnists to the Times-Dispatch on Mondays. Not a bad experiment, actually — we can all judge if it works or not. Looks like they’ll be regular readers with regular points of view. Hmm.

They’re bolstering the line-up of regular RTD columnists, as well. All salaried employees, who will write an extra piece a week, but no extra pay.

I wonder if the guest columnists are gonna get paid for their work?


Here’s the story.

RTD: 2 more out on the street

One sales rep at the Times-Dispatch has already been laid off this week, and an HR manager was let go about ten days ago. Along with the five from editorial in May, I’m not sure if this indicates they’re going to lay people off on a period by period basis, or if they’re just warming up for the end of the quarter in about 3 weeks.

They’re probably just priming the pump.

For all the Ex-Times-Dispatch Employees

I’m Rusty Wornom, and by request (actually, it was the gorgeous and glorious Linda Dunham who came up with this absolutely brilliant idea), I’ve started another blog — but not for me. It’s a place where all the former RTD employees — if you so wish — can post your thoughts, experiences, articles — whatever you want. I do this because the extremely talented people who have been let go from “Virginia’s News Leader” need a venue for their voices, and Linda, in conversations with others, told me that “they need to get the word out about what they do and how good they are.” And I agree. The former staffers of the RTD are some of the most talented people I’ve ever known or worked with. And with luck and perseverance, this new blog will also show others — especially potential employers — that what we all have to say is vital and important.

Here’s the new blog.

100 of you are allowed to register at this site and become contributors/administrators, so it is my hope that we not only include former writers, but also artists, advertising people, and anyone who needs to share their thoughts or artwork — anything that allows the creative juices to flow, the words to erupt, and careers to be furthered.

Write to me or post comments. To register as a regular contributor (so you won’t have to go through me — hell, I do NOT want to be administrator!), write me and I’ll get you listed. rtdispatched(plus the AT sign)

Good luck, everyone. And spread the word — this is for you!

"Save the Newspaper!" Anonymous challenged

Today an anonymous reader left a message on a previous post, “Newspapers Still Ain’t Gettin’ It”:

In 10 words or less please describe what necessary changes newspapers need to make in order to survive.

Sorry, Khanonymous. I can’t do that.

I can do it in eleven:

Decrease circulation
Varied publications
Target niches
Hyperlocal content

In other words:

Metro-dailies are too damn big, from the size of management to their insane and unreasonable budgetary goals. Dailies today have to reflect the market, which is highly fragmented and, in this economy, rightly believes that newspapers are not worth their time or money.

So DECREASE CIRCULATION and go to a less expensive format: TABLOID.

Make it free: 100% ADVERTISER-SUPPORTED.

The base newspaper should focus 90% on HYPERLOCAL issues and stories. People ALL get their national news from the Internet and TV. You can’t fight it any longer.

To make up your losses, create niche publications to reach the entire circulation area. TARGET your demographic NICHES: boomers, parents, dining, arts — focusing content on whatever topics your CBSA values. Since people no longer value newsprint (it’s considered “poor,” make your new publications glossy and “upscale.”

This things are nothing new; I’ve been saying them repeatedly. The problem is, traditional newspapermen don’t want to hear them. To hand out a free paper is against the rules. To give people what they want to read — instead of stories the editors think they NEED to read — is against the rules. To shove management greed aside in order to fix the things that are broken??? Harumph, harumph! That’s against the rules!

In case you haven’t noticed, the rules no longer apply. Newspapers are old news. Now they have to evolve to survive, and that means breaking the old rules and adapting to the new ones.

It means completely changing.

I saw a book at Barnes & Noble just today. This is the product description (I copied it from Amazon) which struck me as I read the flaps in the store, because it describes what has happened to every single one of our great metropolitan newspapers:

Decline can be avoided.

Decline can be detected.

Decline can be reversed.

Amidst the desolate landscape of fallen great companies, Jim Collins began to wonder: How do the mighty fall? Can decline be detected early and avoided? How far can a company fall before the path toward doom becomes inevitable and unshakable? How can companies reverse course?

In How the Mighty Fall, Collins confronts these questions, offering leaders the well-founded hope that they can learn how to stave off decline and, if they find themselves falling, reverse their course. Collins’ research project–more than four years in duration–uncovered five step-wise stages of decline:

Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation

Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death

By understanding these stages of decline, leaders can substantially reduce their chances of falling all the way to the bottom.

Great companies can stumble, badly, and recover.

Every institution, no matter how great, is vulnerable to decline. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fall and most eventually do. But, as Collins’ research emphasizes, some companies do indeed recover–in some cases, coming back even stronger–even after having crashed into the depths of Stage 4.

Decline, it turns out, is largely self-inflicted, and the path to recovery lies largely within our own hands. We are not imprisoned by our circumstances, our history, or even our staggering defeats along the way. As long as we never get entirely knocked out of the game, hope always remains. The mighty can fall, but they can often rise again.

The Times-Dispatch is in Stage 4. Will it inevitably go into Stage 5, or will it adapt and survive?

Here’s the book: How the Mighty Fall.

Suicide and the Times-Dispatch

Thank you, Style Weekly!

If you haven’t read it yet, go here. This is an open letter to all Media General shareholders, read at MG’s annual meeting on April 23 by the author, Michael Paul Williams. Williams has the public persona of a rabble-rouser, according to those people I’ve talked with who dislike him. But this letter is gentle, as far as I’m concerned; if I had been speaking up there to the shareholders and the bow ties, much more rabble would have been roused. (Perhaps security would have been called as well, when I started shouting, “Attica! Attica! You’re out of order! You’re out of order!”)

I’m cutting and pasting to make my own comments. Again, here’s the letter in its entirety.

On April 2, 22 of our members were laid off — about 18 percent of our staff. We also lost five deputy editors, all but one of them former union members at the lowest rung of management. No upper level managers lost their jobs.

With “22,” Williams means union members. 37 other people lost their jobs in those two days, and about 20 more the quarter before that.

As journalists for Media General’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, we are committed to accurate, truthful reporting.

But Media General is not being transparent with its shareholders, who aren’t being told, as we are by top management, that the Times-Dispatch is in “survival mode.” They aren’t being told that Media General is demanding cuts in the newspaper that undermine the viability of a flagship product that management acknowledges is profitable.

I think the cuts they’ve made, and the consensus that the newspaper industry is next in line for ICU, should be obvious to shareholders if they have even half a brain in their pointy little heads. However, opinions like Williams’ are, let’s say, frowned upon by the bow ties, as are any public declarations of any instability at all — because it could have a detrimental effect on stock prices.

They aren’t being told that top executives aren’t willing to take pay cuts in exorbitant salaries, beyond sharing in furloughs and forgoing their lucrative bonuses. We have asked them to take additional pay cuts, and we believe they have been asked internally to take additional pay cuts, but they refuse. And yet they are threatening to lay off more of our people to save less than $200,000, which could be accounted for easily by modest cuts in executive pay or trimming of the newspaper’s bloated senior management staff.

And don’t expect the bow ties to give up one damn penny. Instead, read between the lines of the whole letter, ask yourself exactly what are the bigwigs doing, and then ask:

• Why did the Times-Dispatch cancel publication of the Dining Guide — their only affordable and useful publication for area restaurants to reach the public?
• Why has Channels, the TV section, been reduced to a subscriber-only, 50¢ an issue publication?
• Why isn’t there anything to read in the paper nowadays?

The only thing I can come up with is that the bow ties are systematically designing their own escape plan: cut and run. It’s deliberate sabotage. Cut everything that isn’t 105% profitable, raise the price, cut pages, cut employees — and then, when nothing they do stabilizes the books, they’ll tip the boat over on purpose. They will kill the Times-Dispatch, shrug their shoulders, say “We tried,” and run home with their salaries intact, their paisley ties knotted tight below their flabby, red faces, and sit back with a vodka martini or three.

Ah Michael, at least someone of intelligence has spoken out. I do have some advice for you, though, from one rabble rouser to another: you might as well start cleaning out your desk. The end of June — and the end of the fiscal quarter — is right around the corner, and you know how the bow ties — and some ineffectual middle managers I know — don’t like people who rock the boat.

Newspapers Still Ain’t Gettin’ It

Friend and comics artist extraordinaire Coleen Doran sent me a link to a page of media news, and it caused me to realize that I haven’t railed lately about the stupidity inherent in the bloated and Jurassic newspaper industry.

This post, I hope, will remedy that situation.

Cartoon © Milt Priggee

That attitude pretty much sums up the general consensus in newspaper boardrooms across the country. Newspapers don’t want to evolve — instead they just want to make a few superficial and cosmetic changes — start charging higher prices, start charging for portions of the paper that used to be included with the paper (the tv section in the Times-Dispatch, for example) — and sit back and proclaim that they’ve changed with the times.

Not hardly. The times have already changed, the newspapers missed all the signs, and now the asteroid of evolution slamming hard into their tiny, insular planet with an unimaginable economic force.

The metro daily will not survive.

Here’s the link Colleen sent me, but the important points I’d like to mention are:

Swedish-based Metro International is selling off its network of US free papers, while keeping on operations in other countries:

Metro Int’s finance officer Anders Kronborg said the sale of the loss-making US operations was part of the company’s strategy to get through the economic and financial crisis.

This also includes the closure of Metro’s Spanish operations, announced in January, and savings made from relocating the company’s head office from London to Stockholm.

“I don’t see any growth in the market this year or in 2010,” Kronborg said. Meanwhile, Metro Int is focusing on Latin America, Asia and Russia, where the prospects for the advertising market are better than in the US and Europe.

So, they see no newspaper growth in the US until 2011.

Damn. That’s actually optimistic. I don’t expect holistic newspaper market growth until 2015, at least.

Then there’s William Randolph Hearst wannabe Rupert Murdoch:

remember how News Corp will make readers pay “handsomely” for online content? So what’s the plan? MICRO-PAYMENTS.

News Corp is planning to introduce “micro payments” for individual articles and premium subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal’s website, WSJ Managing Editor Robert Thomson said on Sunday.

“It’s a payments system — once we have your details we will be able to charge you according to what you read, in particular, a high price for specialist material,” Thomson said in an e-mailed response to Reuters questions.

Earlier the Financial Times said the move would be a milestone in the news industry’s search for better business models for online outlets and quoted Thomson as saying the micro payments service would launch this autumn.

Micropayments may actually work for the Financial Times and the WSJ, because they’re niche markets and the ones who read them — professionals — have the disposable cash — ie, the office will pay for it. But it’s been proven that micropayments won’t work for metro-daily newspapers online, nor will charging for subscriptions. (Take a look through some of my past posts about papers if you don’t believe me.)

Regular people will refuse to pay — and rightly so.

And while these masturbatory and pointless exercises are being frothed over in boardrooms, Sen. John Kerry has been hosting hearings in D.C. all about saving newspapers — although he has no idea how to save them, he knows trouble when he sees it:

Kerry said steps must be taken so that news media can stay diverse and independent, but he wasn’t sure what role government should play in those steps.

“As a means of conveying news in a timely way, paper and ink are less in vogue, eclipsed by the power, efficiency and technological elegance of the Internet,” Kerry said as he opened the hearing. “But just looking at the erosion of newspapers is not the full picture; it’s just one casualty of a completely shifting and churning information landscape.”

An evolving landscape:

“High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the Web or anywhere else,” [David] Simon said.

Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, a Web site of opinion and news, said that despite all the hand-wringing about the decline of the newspaper industry, these are good times for news consumers.

Huffington said the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers.

“No, the future is to be found elsewhere,” she said. “It is a linked economy. It is search engines. It is online advertising. It is citizen journalism and foundation-supported investigative funds. That’s where the future is.”

Sen. Kerry’s hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, is owned by the New York Times Co. Both metro dailies have been going through massive problems, which were Kerry’s primary reasons for initiating the newspaper hearings. Now, after an infusion of cash from a Mexican investor, there’s breaking news out of Los Angeles: David Geffen wants a major stake in the NYT.

All I can make out of all of this is that chaos is rampant; change is not coming — it’s already here; and smart people will move the newspaper industry forward, making necessary changes, while the dinosaurs in the upper floors of most of the other metro dailies will just blink a lot in uncomprehending anger as their little worlds are torn apart by forces others have seen on the horizon for years.

Hey — can I borrow 50 cents for the TV section? Never mind — the listings are free on my tv . . . and on the Internet . . . and on my cell phone . . .

If he’s that smart, why was he a shill for Radio Shack?

The printed word will not be replaced or grow less important (but then the printed word has always been the refuge of a small minority — few Americans read as many as on complete book a year), but it will be supplemented.

For instance, a newspaper is still superior as a transmitter of news, by a nearly infinite margin, to the average television news broadcast (which is usually a reading of those headlines that lend themselves to image-illustration), but who says that a newspaper must be printed on a forest of woodpulp and delivered in pound-lots to individuals?

It can be transmitted by screen in a fashion so controlled that it can be skimmed, or halted for closer reading, with particularly interesting items — the financial page, for instance, the sports page, the comic page, a certain news story — printed off on demand.

Again, there is a democratization. you get exactly what you want, not everything that everybody wants.

Issac Asimov, writer, editor or co-editor of more than 500 books, was not only prolific, but he was a visionary. His description of the newspaper of the future absolutely nails the online concept of the newspaper — and it was written in 1972.*

Newspapers rushed into building online components fifteen or so years ago, when the Internet took off under the World Wide Web aegis, thus capturing the imagination of America. They did so under an enormous burden: they HAD to enter the Internet marketplace immediately, because, if they didn’t, they knew they’d get left behind by entrepreneurs and visionaries.

Here it is the 21st Century, and newspapers still don’t know how to make money on the Internet — or even if they can. Most online advertising does not work for the advertisers, and readers demand too much autonomy over what they read and access. And it exactly those entrepreneurs and visionaries papers had to beat who have now beaten them, with unique news websites that do more than simply import a static print experience to the interactive world of cyberspace.

It’s not just the democratization of news that is killing newspapers; it’s audience fragmentation combined with the unintended consequences of catastrophically inept management. A friend in the publishing business, upon hearing of the most recent mass firings at the Times-Dispatch, emailed me: “Short sighted, short-term optimization is brand destruction.”

And he’s right. Whether it’s a deliberate act of corporate suicide or not, it amounts to the same thing: the death of the metropolitan newspaper.

They should have been reading Asimov.

* Asimov’s essay, “Person to Person,” was published in the December 1972 issue of Lifestyle. It was retitled “The Ultimate in Communication” and reprinted in his 1983 collection of essays, The Roving Mind, published by Prometheus Books.

The Long, Slow Death of the Times-Dispatch

. . . and the dinosaurs are feasting today on their own young at 300 East Franklin.

57 good people were shit-canned today, and two more are scheduled for May. Some are people I worked with for nine years; some are friends I’d known for years beforehand, as colleagues and as rivals. Good people, all of them.

Not a single one of them is a bow tie from the corporate office directly across Franklin Street.

Here’s the press release masquerading as an article on Note how it pretty much says nothing of any importance whatsoever. Seriously, you’ve got to love the sheer artistry, the disingenuous genius, that goes into writing bullshit of this caliber:

“This is not a day I ever wanted to see come. I thank each and every departing employee for their years of valued service that helped publish Richmond’s daily newspapers,” said President and Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri.

There are no plans to eliminate days of publication. The Times-Dispatch will continue its focus on breaking, local news and insightful and thorough coverage of our core market in Central Virginia where more than 80% of its readers live and work.

“Despite today’s announcement, our news mission at the RTD remains clear,” said Vice President and Executive Editor Glenn Proctor. “We will provide readers and viewers with a vibrant news website and print product worth reading every day. We will do that by sharpening our focus on state and municipal government, state and local politics, education, crime and public safety, college and prep sports, and, of course, the economy and business.”

“We will do everything we can to retain our current customers by demonstrating our strength as the leading provider of high-quality content and services,” Silvestri added.

Beautiful, isn’t it? And it’s curious how Silvestri and Proctor sound so similar in this piece. I mean, it’s eerie, isn’t it? Unearthly. Almost as if someone were writing the words for them.


The dinosaurs obviously have it all figured out and are doing the best for their company. Right? They’re performing surgery on themselves on the advice of middle managers and bean counters who simply don’t understand that the future is here and it’s coming to get them if they don’t evolve and run faster, better, and leave behind their usual, hidebound, corporate bullshit.

And why, exactly, is it bullshit? Well, let’s read between the lines, shall we, and try to discern the pattern hidden behind the corporate curtain, and you tell me what you come up with:

1. Downsizing the reporting staff is one thing. But the primary sales rep responsible for at least — and this is conservative — half the revenue that flows from national accounts was let go. Why?

2. The library staff was let go, except for two. Why?

3. Three months ago the two-person research staff was let go. Why?

4. In May — the end of the school year — the Newspaper in Education staff will be terminated. They aren’t revenue producing, but they pulled in circulation numbers — about 2 million papers were distributed to area schools last year. Why?

5. Despite “Silvestri’s” claim in the press release that there are no plans to cut publication days, Style Weekly reports that:

Media General, the Times-Dispatch’s parent company, announced a reorganization of its corporate business structure last week, described by company officials as a move to a “Web First strategy.” Divisions between the company’s television, print and Internet holdings were broken down and replaced with five geographic markets. That strategy is in line with remarks made by T-D Publisher Tom Silvestri in recent years, in which he’s speculated on a merging of the company’s mediums, with the daily print newspaper ideally scaled back to three times a week or fewer, in favor of an online presence.

6. Style also reports that:

“Sources also say the newsroom was recently informed of changes that largely do away with the food section and real estate pages. Times-Dispatch spokeswoman Frazier Millner clarifies with Style that Wednesday food coverage will stay with a “change in format,” including going to black and white . . .”

NOTE THIS LAST PART. It’s extremely important . . .

Sure, the bow ties will tell us these positions were being eradicated and it’s all an effort to cut costs. Somewhat true, that is. (Why, suddenly, do I sound like Yoda?)

But here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s the truth I see lurking behind their flimsy, patchwork wall of excuses and bullshit: The Times-Dispatch doesn’t need a few million in national sales; they don’t need a research staff; they don’t need to promote papers in schools; they don’t need librarians to get facts and answers to reporters; they may or may not go to a three-day a week publishing schedule, but it won”t really matter in the long run; and the paper can return to glorious black and white despite what readers really want . . . all this because the bow ties up in the MG dinosaur den are gutting the company not only to save short term costs, but in order to justify the company’s deliberate and eventual suicide.

I admit: on the surface, some of the personnel cuts they made today were justified. Some were justified during the last two rounds, as well. But this round eliminates people and jobs that are only unnecessary if you begin to consider the unthinkable: that the company is preparing not only to go Web-first, but Web-only, and that the RTD will cease publication, perhaps not in a matter of years, but in months.

The RTD is quite top heavy now, but there won’t be any cuts up in the dinosaur den. They’re tightening their bow ties and polishing their spats, getting ready to run with their seven figure salaries and bonuses, as per their contracts, as signed by God! But be assured there will be more bloodletting at the staff levels in three months — the end of the current fiscal quarter. Personally, I think that the RTD will sell out their advertising art department and outsource to freaking India for all ad production, just like their Winston-Salem and Tampa papers — if not by July, then by October.

If I’m proven wrong, it will be because the bow ties will kill the paper by the end of the fiscal year.

Deliberate and eventual suicide.

Today the dinosaurs posted an editorial that makes fun of Twitter, the online messaging site.

Web-first. You’ve gotta laugh. They just don’t get it. The future is here — hell, Asimov predicted this in an essay in 1983 (I’ll blog about that another time) — and it’s inconceivable to them!

How can they possibly go Web-first if they are woefully Web-ignorant?

The RTD can again become successful — not through downsizing and knee-jerk change, but by the embrace of deliberate corporate evolution; by a careful examination of American culture and consumer needs in the 21st century; by working with the public, instead of merely exploiting them; by hiring people who just freaking get it and by the firing of those who don’t; and by the adoption of reasonable financial goals.

But I no longer think the bow ties will take the high road and do what’s necessary.

I think they’re gonna cash their bonus checks and bail, leaving us with the Richmond Times-Disgrace. “Thanks, Richmond! Been nice knowing ya! I’ll see ya on hole 9!”