Newspapers chart digital course amid uncertain times

Across the country, newspaper companies have found themselves under intense economic pressures, brought on both by the extended recession and the emergence of new communications technologies.

As editors from across Kansas gather this week in Lawrence to celebrate journalistic excellence during William Allen White Day, the search for opportunity, success — even survival — continues for an industry that retains its printed past as it proceeds into a digital future.

“We’re in uncertain shape,” said John Montgomery, editor and publisher of The Hutchinson News and a trustee for the William Allen White Foundation. “The dynamics are very — how should I say? — interesting. I’m just watching to see how everything plays out.

“Newspapers, and local news companies, will definitely have a place in the future. It just may not be on paper forever. That’s something we’ve always known; it’s just that the transition is rapidly accelerating.”

Overall, newspaper revenues have declined by nearly 40 percent during the past two years, according to the Newspaper Association of America, as advertising revenue — particularly from classified advertising — has been hard hit. At least seven major newspaper companies have declared bankruptcy, and since 2007, the industry has shed nearly 30,000 jobs.

Kansas hasn’t been immune. Today 35 daily newspapers are in the state, down 27 percent from the 48 operating a dozen years ago, according to the Kansas Press Association. Morris Publishing Group, parent of the Topeka Capital-Journal, filed last month for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, seeking to eliminate more than $178 million in debt.

In Lawrence, The World Company’s newspaper operations have responded to declining revenues with a number of business moves, ranging from charging fees for publication of obituaries to laying off employees and trimming the size of print editions to reduce production costs.

“I wish we had more pages,” said Dolph C. Simons Jr., chairman of The World Company, which owns the Journal-World. “At the same time, we have to live within our means.”

Professional journalism

Despite the challenges, newspapers continue working to provide the local and in-depth reporting that is “critical to a functioning democracy,” said John Sturm, the NAA’s president and CEO.

And even as competition mounts, he told a congressional committee last year, the commitment endures.

“Newspapers are the primary source of credible, professional journalism that has a positive impact on our communities and our nation,” Sturm said. “Indeed, in most markets, the local newspaper has more reporters on the street than all other local media combined.”

In one representative market, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspapers and their Web sites provided 61 percent of all original reporting and fresh information distributed by media during a given week.

Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, continues to regard a newspaper’s primary strength as its standing as a trusted and reliable information source.

The Journal-World, for example, continues to spend $40,000 each year on travel for reporters and photographers covering Kansas University athletics, and also maintains a full-time bureau in the Kansas Statehouse to cover the Legislature and other pressing statewide issues.

“Communities need our watchdog role, and we’re the best ones to fill it,” Anstaett said. “We have the staff and capability to cover news more in depth than anybody else. We do that, and we’ll continue to do that.”

What’s the future

With the advent of online and other modes of communication, newspapers are finding more ways to tell stories and provide advertising. And while the number of people reading printed newspapers continues to decline, the number of readers moving online and using mobile technology remains on the rise.

Even if the revenue to finance such operations struggles to keep up.

“We’re in a state of transition,” said Anstaett, whose organization represents 240 newspapers in Kansas, some of whom “haven’t joined the fight yet” against what he sees as competing digital media. “Broadcasters and even magazines are folding weekly because of this new competition.

“Let’s put it this way: We haven’t perfected the way to compete with the Web yet.”

The Journal-World — with roots back to 1891 — is charting a course in a digital world.

“We have to figure out ways that the public wants to receive their news, at a time and a method and a cost that fits into their habits,” Simons said.

Even the very nature of reporting is changing at the newspaper. While the organization will continue its focus on the important news of the day, issues of the time and needs of the community, the Journal-World’s approach no longer is limited to the traditional “we talk, you listen” model that’s been the industry standard, Simons said.

Instead, reporters and editors are establishing a collection of “niche” news sites designed to meet the changing needs and expectations of readers, advertisers and community, said Jane Stevens, director of online strategies for The World Company. Look for detailed, immersive and interactive sites dedicated to weather, state government, education and other topics in the coming year, filled with community-generated content moderated and augmented by journalists.

“Where we used to be a mile wide and an inch deep, now we’re going to be an inch wide and a mile deep,” Stevens said.

The initiative’s first site, HealthCommons, already is bringing together people involved with and interested in health — such as health care providers, health consumers, government agencies, businesses that handle products and services, social service agencies and religious organizations — to share information in a place when information-sharing is understood, responsible commentary is expected and problem-solving is encouraged.

“We’re still the community watchdog, but we’re also the community steward,” Stevens said.

Niche-news efforts elsewhere have generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue, as advertisers tap into the booming consumer use of the Web and mobile devices for news and information, Stevens said. But The World Company’s sites also will include social media tools and features “baked in,” allowing advertisers and others to take part in discussions and information exchanges intended to help shape the community’s own solutions to its own problems.

It’s an approach that Simons sees as yet another advancement opportunity for his newspaper, and news organization.

“I’m genuinely optimistic, because there are new opportunities out there,” he said. “Our challenge is to have the vision and have the smarts and have the people and have the courage to take advantage of the opportunities.

“You’re not going to have a chance to succeed if you don’t move ahead.”