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Reports of newspapers' death greatly exaggerated

February 12, 2006|By JOHN LEAGUE

You can't pick up a newspaper or surf the Web without seeing another end-of-the-world story about the newspaper industry.

The stories generally follow one or more of the following themes: Circulation is declining. Fewer people are reading the paper. Profit margins are falling. Staff is being eliminated. The end of newspapers as we know them is near.

Some of the coverage seems to reflect an almost perverse pleasure in reporting our industry's challenges, perhaps by newspapers whose newsrooms have felt the unfortunate consequences of RIFS and buyouts.

But while some newspaper companies are struggling, many aren't. And we're one of them.

To be sure, if you graduated from college 30 years ago and expected the print and electronic media landscape to remain the same now as it was then, then you were in for a shock.

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Television has gone from three dominant networks available primarily via antenna to hundreds (if not thousands) of channels on cable and satellite. Network viewership continues to decline. Pay-per-view, TiVo and on-demand technology will continue to substantially alter the commercial television landscape.

Ditto for radio. Local stations are disappearing. If you want to see a locally owned, locally operated, locally programmed and locally functioning full-time commercial radio station, there is but one in Hagerstown: WJEJ. The advent of subscription-based satellite radio, such as Sirius and XM, will further change the radio industry.

Newspaper circulation nationwide has been on the decline for years. We've been impacted by other media, technological changes, lifestyle changes and the continual erosion of interest on the part of communities in their governments and their civic structure. (Exhibit A: voter participation in local elections, or lack thereof.)

But the biggest impediment to newspaper growth has been newspapers themselves. As an industry, we're resistant to change. Many owners and publishers have tried to cut expenses as the primary path forward, neglecting any investment in their operations. Editors complain about staff cuts forced on them by "corporate bean counters," but don't ever get around to asking this question: Why aren't more people reading our newspapers?

Well, to quote a friend of mine, "That ain't us."

The Herald-Mail is lucky. We are blessed to be in a community that still reads and values a local newspaper. We have forward-thinking employees who embrace change. We have a newsroom that continues to increase the amount of local news that we put in each day's edition of the paper. (We track these things, actually.) We continually talk to and survey our readership to see what you want, and then try to deliver it.

In Hagerstown, you're still much more likely to hear someone say "they read it in the paper" than "they saw it on TV," at least as it regards local news and information. Our financial bottom line reflects that devotion and dedication. We are a growing, healthy company, diversifying our product line into book publishing, niche products and our Web sites.

And more people than ever are reading the news and advertising published by The Herald-Mail.

We reached a milestone in January. We averaged combined daily circulation of about 36,300 people in print, and another 13,800 unique visitors daily to our Web site. (That's not hits; that's individual people.) For the first time in our company's history, more than 50,000 people daily were reading information published by The Herald-Mail. Wow!

As publisher, I'm jazzed about the future of our company. Not only will we continue to provide the most complete coverage of local news and events in a traditional fashion, we are committed to expanding our audience to those folks whose primary source of all information is through their computers.

The Web site provides an old news junkie like me with a bunch of new ways to disseminate information. We now can beat our electronic brethren on big news stories thanks to technology. And, twice recently, we did. On its own, herald-mail.com has become quite a force. (If you're a politician and you aren't reading our online forums, here's a hint: Better start to do so.)

For the folks who signed up for our breaking news service, you were the first to be alerted of Mayor Dick Trump's resignation, for example, or the tragic shooting at the hospital. We no longer have to wait for the presses to roll to beat TV and radio to the punch.

I could go on, but I'm nearing the end of my space here. Suffice it to say, The Herald-Mail is a healthy newspaper company. We've been publishing for more than 175 years and, I bet, we'll still be publishing news and information 175 years from now, in ways we only can dream about today.




John League is editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7073, or by e-mail at jleague@herald-mail.com.

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