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"Newspapers are actually seeing their audience grow if you combine their print editions and their Web traffic," said Rosenstiel, who has spent more than 30 years as a journalist. "The future of newspapers would be much bleaker had their audiences migrated to other news sources. So the question facing the industry is can they monetize the audience, not can they regain the audience. And that's a much easier thing to consider. There are a variety of options, but most people would agree only on one thing, which is there probably is not one solution. Many different revenue models coupled together could represent something significant."
A tangled Web
If you're a regular visitor to CharlotteObserver.com, then you notice that stories are published and updated throughout the day, many times after midnight. Newspapers, once viewed as slow in comparison to up-to-the-minute television newscasts, have now become a go-to source for breaking news.
"Generally, our news cycle is from about 4 a.m. to about 2 a.m.," Thames said. "There are only about a couple of hours when we aren't looking for what's going on. It's pretty exciting because for many years, newspapers were the dominant media in their markets, but we weren't really the source of information for people who were looking for immediacy. Immediacy was all about broadcast. With the introduction of the Web, newspapers have now regained that, and we can now compete for immediacy as well as for context."
The Web is also allowing the Observer to connect more with readers and, it hopes, increase the reader's experience. The Observer's staff, these days, probably spends more time on social media sites than a college student home for the summer with no job.
After growing its social media presence over the past couple of years, the Observer unveiled a social media directory on its website in June. The page lists links to and descriptions of the nearly 20 Facebook accounts the newspaper operates, ranging from "The Charlotte Observer Photography" Facebook page to the one devoted to MomsCharlotte. The directory also links to more than 30 Twitter accounts, two-thirds of which are "personal" accounts by staff reporters and editors.
"Is it a challenge to be able to work across all of these platforms?" Thames said. "It's a bit of a challenge, but I've been proud of our staff at how they have engaged with this. They really understand that this is important to their pact with our readers, to be where our readers need us to be. If our readers choose to be on Facebook or to be largely on Twitter, then we'll produce journalism that they need there."
All of this in the face of sliding circulation. The latest six-month circulation report, released in April by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, showed that the Observer's daily circulation decreased by 11 percent to 166,546, and Sunday circulation fell by eight percent to 226,030. By comparison, in the Carolinas, the Raleigh News & Observer's daily circulation declined 12 percent, the Greensboro News & Record's daily circulation fell 17 percent, and The State's decreased by 14 percent.
Some of the Observer's circulation decline could be attributed to the price increases the paper imposed last year, which would be an unfortunate irony considering it was a move to increase revenue. The newsstand price of the daily paper rose from 50 cents to 75 cents, and the Sunday paper increased from $1.50 to $2.
But the Carolinas' newspapers are faring better than papers in other parts of the country. During the aforementioned auditing period, the San Francisco Chronicle's daily circulation dropped 22.7 percent, the biggest decline of the nation's 25 largest newspapers.
With the decline of newspapers' circulation, some analysts have suggested that some papers reduce the number of days they publish in print, abandoning the traditional concept of a daily newspaper. While many papers may not feel they're in such dire need, they also don't want to end up like the Rocky Mountain News. Denver's once-thriving daily newspaper saw its circulation peak in 2006 with a daily circulation of 255,000. But three years later, in February 2009, after quarter after quarter of declining revenue, the Rocky Mountain News folded after 150 years of operation. In a less dramatic example, but equally devastating to the print industry, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer killed its print publication and became online-only in March of last year. The Hearst Corporation-owned paper reduced its newsroom from a staff of 160 to 20.
Then take Detroit. Not only is there rarely any good news coming out of the Motor City these days, the last couple of years have been bad for the city's newspapers. Hit by some of the highest unemployment and home foreclosure figures in the country, it's logical that newspapers would also suffer. The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press both decided last year to reduce the number of days they home-deliver papers. The two papers are delivered to homes on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, the papers are only sold on newsstands, and those print editions have substantially fewer pages than the papers published on delivery days. A year later, both papers are touting the move as relatively successful, citing how the savings on newsprint and distribution costs have helped reduce the number of layoffs in the newsroom.