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2008: The Changing Face of Newspapers

digital news transformationAs years end and the holiday cycle takes over, the pace of events downshifts to a crawl.  People rest, taking time with friends and family to reflect and recharge.  Vacation’s take over, businesses shutter.  Business events and politics, pause.  Similarly, the news industry reporting on it all, retrenches. In papers and on websites around the world, pages and mastheads usually dotted with zippy headlines and urgent ledes loan space to nostalgic recaps and forward projections; accounts of the year that was and prognostication for the year that will be.

It’s that time of year.

The lists of 2008’s highlights and shortcomings promise to be long.  Many will emphasize the historic U.S. elections and the plight of the global economy.  There will be talk of Wall Street’s upheaval and the auto industry’s implosion, Madoff’s mess and fortunes lost. There will be assessments of the Mideast, reference to oil and gas and the environment. There will be summaries of mergers and acquisitions, those that succeeded and those that failed, highlight reels and shames, box office booms and busts.

So goes the year end process.

In this fervent generation of lists, hopefully,  the news media won’t overlook reviewing itself.  History has yet to write the footnotes, but 2008 is a year that could end up standing out as a part of a watershed period in the evolution of print media, a year when Internet news became a more relied upon source than print (according to a recent Pew Internet survey), a time when digitally rooted upheaval may have finally reached such a pinnacle that it will begin to force the transformation of the industry.

2008: In the Rearview Mirror
If change was in the air for print media in 2008, it’s no more apparent or flaunted than in the sales and bankruptcies that periodically grabbed the headlines.  Just to recap:

The parade began in February when Reed Elsevier announced plans to sell off their publishing division, RBI.  The group, which is home to Variety and 130 other trade publications, was under performing but Reed’s executives were optimistic there would be “a strong level of interest” nonetheless.  There wasn’t.  No buyer appeared – that, arguably, a barometer for troubles to come around the industry.

In March, it was Ziff Davis Media that fell victim. Lacking a parent company like Reed Elsevier to support it and absorb losses, the company, which had been bought in 1999 for almost $800m, filed for bankruptcy protection.  The property was revalued at a fraction of what it had been worth a few years earlier.

In April, it was the Journal Register Co. in trouble.  The publisher of 22 daily papers was about to be delisted by the New York Stock Exchange, its market cap shrunken.  With few options, the company put itself up for sale.  Today, its future remains very much in doubt.

December, it was the Tribune Company that provided the exclamation mark to cap the year.  Saddled with debt, the more than one hundred and sixty year old company that owns the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times (each among the ten largest papers (PDF) in the country), took the gigantic step of filing for bankruptcy.  Only the company’s two most saleable assets – the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field – were left out of the shelter.

2009: Looking Forward
It’s too early to guess what 2009 will be but if 2008 was so obviously a year of upheaval, it seems worth asking – will 2009 by a year the industry begins to rise from its own ashes or another year of more difficult changes?

One place to watch will be the New York Times.  Heading into 2009, the company will need to confront more than $670m in long term debt, a credit line in need of renegotiation and a weak ad market.  

In November, the company, which is the country’s third largest paper by circulation behind USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, cut their dividend.  Widespread reports through December have had the company looking to potentially mortgage part of their property holdings and in discussions to sell off their interest  in New England Sports Ventures (the ownership company of the Boston Red Sox and its affiliated NESN TV network) to raise capital.

How the New York Times handles the darker days of January and February may be a hint to how the rest of the newspaper industry will fare into 2009. Up or down, change will keep coming.

Last month, in speeches we excerpted a bit of on Metue,  Rupert Murdoch spoke to Australian audiences on, among other things, the state of the media.  The septuagenarian News Corp. chief and archetypal newsman’s words seem fitting to repeat again:

“We are in the midst of a shift from an industrial society to an information society. And the news and entertainment industry is right in the centre of the maelstrom…” he said.

“The challenge is clear. But so is history. Each improvement in information technology we have seen in the past—beginning with Gutenberg’s press and continuing with radio and television—has opened up access to more news and entertainment for millions more people who previously couldn’t get or afford it. There is no reason to think the trend will be different this time. Except that this time, the access will be universal—and the impact will be more profound.”

“History also shows that with each new advance, existing businesses are forced to become more creative and relevant to their customers. Once upon a time, the media and entertainment companies could count on the huge, up-front investments that discouraged competitors from entering the business. But, in many sectors, the barriers to entry have never been lower—and the opportunities for the energetic and the creative have never been greater. ..This competition is becoming more intense every day. Because technology now allows the little guy to do what once required a huge corporation.”

2009, what will the media do with it?  We’ll begin to see soon enough.

Related Articles
Tribune Files for Bankruptcy
•Ziff Davis Media Files for Bankruptcy
Reed plans to Sell Variety and other Trade Publications
•Murdoch Talks Technology and Press
Stat Survey: Struggling at the Presses
NY Times Struggles through July, More Hardships Coming
Zell Takes Control of Tribune
Industry Standard:  the Sequel
Contemplating Disruption: Will Internet Evolution Hurt Big Media
News Corp and Dow Jones: Inside the Biggest of the Big Newspaper Deals


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