January 21, 2010

Fighting "...irrational negativity"

This has been an interesting week.

The Denver Post’s parent company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The New York Times is positioned to start charging for its on-line content. And the Rapid City Journal’s owner – Lee Enterprises – reports revenues for 2009 dropped by 18.2 percent.

In fact, Lee indicated that its yearend report was actually encouraging news. Fourth Quarter revenues were down by 14%. Lee owns the Rapid City Journal, the Bismarck (ND) Tribune, the Casper Star-Tribune, and several Montana papers among its stable of some 53 dailies. They also operate more than 300 “specialty” publications in 23 states.

Lee CEO Mary Junck, in a letter to stockholders, ticked off a wide range of Lee accomplishments, including the refinancing of $1.3 billion of debt and streamlined operations.

“Through intense collaboration, our editors redesigned our pages to a reduced width of 11 inches, gaining approval from readers and advertisers,” Junck wrote. That move helped Lee shave newsprint usage by 31 percent.

Interestingly, Lee has launched a public relations campaign to combat what Junck called the continuing, “irrational negativity” about the future of newspapers. One of the PR steps was producing the "business card" similar to the one shown here for the Rapid City Journal, touting the audience and performance of Lee. Click on the card to see how the Journal and other Lee papers are attacking that negativity. Similar cards were done for all of Lee’s 53 daily newspapers.

Meanwhile, over in Colorado, Denver Post CEO Dean Singleton is promising no layoffs as a result of imminent Chapter 11 bankruptcy for MediaNews Group, a Denver-based organization that owns the Post, Boulder Camera, and 52 other daily newspapers. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that MediaNews has been “teetering for months.” The bankruptcy will reportedly reduce MediaNews debt from $930 million to $165 million, and Singleton suggested employees play up the positive aspects of the Chapter 11 filing.

Perhaps Singleton and Junck – and many newspaper executives have been talking with one another about how to paint a rosier picture.

To be sure, we’re hopeful that newspapers can re-invent themselves into a sustainable product that endures for years to come. Perhaps I’m old fashioned (perhaps??!!) but thumbing through and reading the morning paper is a joy I don’t want to give up.

On-line news just isn’t quite as cathartic. Especially if you have to pay for it, after having enjoyed free access to the New York Times for such a long time. One of the last holdouts offering free access to its on-line version, the Times will likely announce within the next few weeks exactly how it expects to monetize its on-line services.

We support charging for these services. But exactly how such fees are assessed and at what level will be a challenge. We like the “tease” approach being used by the Black Hills Pioneer (a Seaton publication), whereby you can read a paragraph or two – and possibly enjoy a photo – before being prompted to click a link to “…read more.” That’s when readers can subscribe to the full-meal deal and read the entire paper on-line.

On-line journalism is likely to continue to grow. We trust it will also get significantly better. If newspapers can survive and then thrive in a modified form, that would be a good thing, giving us some choices.

For now, we’re entrenched with one foot in the print world and one in the on-line world. We can live with that.

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