The good 'Times' are over
Barbara Ferguson | Arab News
WASHINGTON: It's not a particularly happy New Year in the nation's capital, where The Washington Times is in big trouble. We were aware that last month it laid off a large proportion of its newsroom staff, even eliminated its popular Sports Page. But today — no copy of the newspaper was delivered to our doorstep.
The official explanation was worse than feared. There would be no more home deliveries of the newspaper, we were told. Distribution would now only be at limited locations so — the only option was to subscribe online to the newspaper.
What? This newspaper is mouthpiece of the Washington conservatives! And, whether you loved the newspaper or hated it, it gave the conservative perspective to issues in our nation's capital which was essential for balance when it comes to understanding, or trying to understand, the thorny issues that drive national politics.
The Washington Times, launched in 1982 by Sun Myung Moon, was one of the more recent additions to the American newspaper industry.
While it mainly relied on subsidies from Moon, which invariably affected its credibility, the paper had come under increasing financial pressure as advertisers move dollars from print to digital media.
What is regrettable is that the problems come not from a bad news reporting, but from the paper's bad management. Now, the continued operation of the newspaper, which is owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, seems to be in serious doubt.
Sources at the Times said they fear major changes and that the Moon family feud that's driving the paper's turmoil could lead to the Times shutting down in the coming months — with some suggesting that Preston Moon, the reverend's son who serves as chairman of News World Communications, the parent company of the Washington Times, may have already made that decision.
But recent cuts — part of a strategic repositioning of the newspaper — fell especially hard as the layoffs claimed Managing Editor David Jones, and Executive Editor John Solomon resigned last month, meaning the newspaper's editorial team is effectively decapitated.
With about 60 percent of its editorial staff gone — not the 40 percent cut initially announced — it would be hard to describe the revamped Times as anything other than a bare-bones publication.
The popular metro and sports sections are gone — and their writers fired. Much of the inside of the news section is filled with wire stories. The conservative commentary section has little staff-written material beyond the editorials. Instead, it features the thoughts outside conservative contributors.
Even by the standards of a struggling newspaper industry, the shrinkage is severe.
The Times has recently run some solid staff-written pieces, but it's clear that the Web is the company's priority, not the free, limited-distribution, Monday-to-Friday print edition.
Some observers here believe the paper, with its relatively modest circulation, may now opt to pursue an online-only strategy to harness its growth in that area, and continue developing the new Washington Times radio network.
The web site, meanwhile, has had its own cutbacks, with the company killing a companion opinion page, theconservatives.com, which observers say: "never really got off the ground."
Morale at the Times has been devastated, with many staffers questioning the paper's survival strategy. Some top correspondents have quit for other jobs, including three who covered the White House for them.
As for us, those who read the paper daily, current subscribers will only be offered subscriptions to The Washington Times digital edition and The Washington Times Weekly. Washington will miss the daily edition of the Washington Times. It is another sad day for the newspaper industry.
While the Asper family, which founded and controlled CanWest, is trying to maintain control of its television business, Friday's filing will apparently bring an end to its role as the country's leading publisher.
CanWest said that if no buyer was immediately found for the newspapers, they would be sold to the secured lender. They would effectively acquire the newspapers by exchanging the debt they carry for equity. That group, however, is dominated by Canada's five largest banks. Both business and political reasons suggested that the banks would not be keen to control the country's newspaper business for an extended period.
While Canadian newspapers have been hurt by the rise of the Internet, its impact has not been as severe in Canada as in the United States. Most of CanWest's newspapers are believed to be solidly profitable on an operating basis. The National Post, the money-losing Toronto-based newspaper, was not included in the bankruptcy filing, but lenders intend to purchase it along with the others.
Forbes Media has finally sold off its pricey headquarters in New York's Greenwich Village, in a move to get some much-needed liquidity. New York University (NYU) is the buyer. Forbes will still retain a five-year lease, though other financial terms were not disclosed.
Reed Business Information U.S., which warned in a memo last week that it will start closing some of the mags it was not successful in selling off, has announced the first such closure: Video Business, a 29 year-old mag that has been on the bubble for years now, is closing, starting immediately. Jan 4th was the final print issue and its online operations will be closing down as well. The company is also closing MBT (Manufacturing Business Technology) and Industrial Distribution. The company is now directing VB readers to Variety.com, which recently went behind a paywall.
The Reed Business US sale process is a tough going, according to an internal year-end memo sent out by RBI USA CEO John Poulin, reports PaidContent.org. The parent company tried to sell the global RBI unit last year and that was abandoned after it couldn't find a buyer at the price it wanted. Then earlier this year, it announced a process to only sell certain titles of its U.S. RBI arm.
The freefall in newspaper advertising might be coming to an end after two brutal years, according to forecasts by Group M. However, that only means advertising declines will be in single digits for regional and national newspapers instead of the double-digit swoons over the past two years.
Douglas McCabe, of Enders Analysis, says the declines in revenue and job losses at newspapers may slow in the new year, but said: "I don't think in 2010 they will say: 'That's it, we're done' or more optimistically enter some fantasy land, where they start adding people."
Instead, he sees 2010 and 2011 as being very tough years for newspapers. The decisions on what to cut will become more difficult "intellectually and emotionally", McCabe said.
However, the problems won't be isolated to newspapers. The next two years will not be great for almost any media you can think of, he added.
Andrews is more optimistic about the fortunes of television companies in 2010 than he is for magazines and newspapers. "TV still has something of an ability to reach a mass audience, despite fragmentation by digital, and broadcasters have been able to sustain their income during the downturn," he said.
In 2010, both Andrews and McCabe said almost every publisher will begin to experiment with online paid content.
McCabe said: "Every effort will be made to generate revenue from online services and run newsrooms of scale – or a scale vaguely resembling – the past." The biggest challenge will be working out the subscription and other paid content models.
Andrews sees a real risk in local and regional newspapers in choosing paywall models as their paid content strategy. "They are already losing a lot of their younger readers. They are stopping reading local news." Building a paywall around local content can hardly be seen as designed to encourage lost readers back, he said.
Apart from paid content strategies, British media are in the very early stages of hyperlocal experiments, some from newspapers and others from journalism start-ups, McCabe said. However, most of these projects operate on a very small cost base and will not generate millions of pounds or create the volume of jobs needed to replace those lost in the last two years.
After 100 years with little change in the job of a journalist, things are moving very quickly. Journalists used to join big newspapers and have their career looked after, McCabe said. That's over, and news staffs of the future will be smaller.
Despite the difficulty he sees for media over the next two years, McCabe says, "This is an exciting time for people who have hunger to make it and to manage their career in a hands-on way."
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Spare a thought for the humble hardback this Christmas. It seems the traditional giftwrapped tome is being trumped by downloads, after Amazon customers bought more e-books than printed books for the first time on Christmas Day.
As people rushed to fill their freshly unwrapped e-readers – one of the top-selling gadgets this festive season – the online retailer said sales at its electronic book store quickly overtook orders for physical books. Its own e-reader, the Kindle, is now the most popular gift in Amazon's history.
British publishers have also been exploring the market for electronic versions of books in the hope of enjoying strong sales when e-book stores and reading devices achieve critical mass in the coming years.