Tube City Almanac

December 16, 2008

If It's News to You, It's News to Me

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

The news last week that the Post-Gazette was losing about two dozen of its most experienced writers was accompanied by word that One of America's Greats also was raising the single-copy price from 50 to 75 cents.

This prompted a former boss of mine from the competition to quip: "We're the only industry that responds to dropping sales by making our product s--ttier and raising prices."

In case you haven't heard, these are tough times in the newspaper industry. The Detroit dailies are cutting back home delivery to three days a week. The Chicago Tribune is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Miami Herald is for sale.

Print newspaper readership is dropping at the same time that the recession has caused other businesses to pull back their advertising. So while the rest of the economy is catching cold, the newspaper business has pneumonia.

. . .

I read the new, 75-cent P-G Monday morning amid the squalor of the PAT bus depot ("transportation center" my rear) on Lysle Boulevard.

About 20 inches of the features section was turned over to columnist Patricia Sheridan's "Breakfast With" 83-year-old Tony Curtis. It featured gems like this:

Q: You have been married, I think, six times. Did you find it hard to commit or was it something else?

A: I am glad you said that because it was. I would wait, you see, wait until I got married and realize I hadn't done the right thing for me, you know? It seemed all right at the time. But it wasn't good for anybody, and the wives didn't help.

And on and on and on it goes, for 1,200 words.

First, Tony Curtis. Really? Does anyone under the age of 70 even remember Tony Curtis? (Hint: Jamie Lee Curtis' dad. He also made a guest appearance on "The Flintstones.")

Second, not only did Sheridan print Curtis' vacuous answers, she printed his shallow praise of her "interviewing" technique.

Oh, my head. There are so many things wrong that I don't know where to start.

. . .

There are a lot of reasons why newspapers are in the dumper. The Internets get blamed, and rightfully so. For one thing, they skimmed off much of the advertising --- specifically, classified ads.

The catch is that many, many more people are reading news generated by newspapers than ever before. The website of the New York Times is hugely popular --- and is probably read by many visitors who never saw the print edition of the Times.

Unfortunately, it's also being read by many people who used to buy the print edition, but don't any more.

. . .

Meanwhile, efforts to force people to pay for online access to news have (mostly) failed. And efforts to sell advertising on websites haven't generated much money for the people who own the websites.

Tube City Almanac (to take one example) has about 1,200 unique visitors per week. Tube City Online LLC has been selling Google advertising since July, and has made a grand total of $25.98. referrals have added another $100 to the corporate "treasury" (a black-and-white composition book).

But the server space costs $10 per month, and a high-speed Internet connection costs another $20. If "the corporation" (such as it is) also had to deduct wages, mileage and other expenses, it would be thousands of dollars in the hole.

If you suspect the New York Times is in a similar but much, much larger boat, you're right. According to The New York Times Co.'s 2007 annual report, "while online advertising revenues grew, they were more than offset by the decline in print advertising revenues."

In other words, they're losing money on every visitor to their website, but they're making it up in volume.

. . .

Still, I can't help but think that some of the problems in the newspaper business are self-inflicted.

I don't see any evidence that people are unwilling to read. I also don't see any evidence that people are unwilling to pay for a print product --- take a look at the magazine rack in Scozio's in White Oak and count the number of titles on sale.

But print newspapers aren't making a great case for being indispensable.

. . .

Take my Monday P-G (please): In the features section, besides Pat Sheridan's earth-shaking interview with Mr. Schwartz, there were two pages of syndicated comics, 16 of which debuted more than 30 years ago. Several of those are no longer being updated; only reruns are appearing.

The front "world news" section was mostly filled with day-old stories from wire services --- and by definition, none of those were news. Most of one page was occupied by the bridge column, Jumble, Wishing Well, the horoscope and two (count 'em!) crossword puzzles.

How much money would the Post-Gazette save by eliminating its "world news" section and a lot of this crud? It would be a much smaller newspaper, but it also would consume less paper and ink and require less energy and manpower to deliver.

How much money would be saved simply by dumping comic strips like "Beetle Bailey," "Rex Morgan," "Marmaduke" and "Family Circus," which haven't been funny for two generations, and exist solely so that The Comics Curmudgeon can make fun of them?

Yes, that would lose a lot of older readers, but a lot of them aren't going to be customers for much longer anyway, for obvious reasons.

. . .

As for celebrity news, if I'm reading entertainment news in the Post-Gazette or Tribune-Review, I should be reading about local TV, radio and theater personalities.

Keep critics covering those beats, and can the people who write about movies ... unless the movies have a local connection. I have a hard time believing that anyone is buying the Post-Gazette or Tribune-Review to read the latest gossip from Hollywood.

Especially when that "gossip" is being delivered by Tony Curtis.

Because when I read that column, I was sitting on the wall at the bus depot next to a mound of pigeon dung, but it wasn't the biggest pile that I could see.

. . .

(Standard disclaimer: Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of any other organization. And he's a failed ex-newspaper reporter, so what does he know anyway?)

Your Comments are Welcome!

Hey Jason…didn’t even know you had google ads on the website…they don’t show up in the individual entries produced by the RSS feed.
Dan - December 17, 2008

Another astute commentary. I’d like to add that the P-G isn’t very customer friendly, or customer focused and at times has seemingly gone out of their way to drive away customers.

I used to subscribe to the Sunday only edition mostly because I don’t have time to read the paper page-for-page on M-F. The problem with that is they don’t really want customers to subscribe to Sunday only. They continually harrass you as a current subscriber to get the 7-day subscription “for the same price” or less. Then to make matters worse, they don’t want to take no for an answer regardless of what reason you give them for declining. They counter with innane dribble that “even if YOU don’t read it you can take it to the office for your co-workers” and such.

Maybe I don’t want to be bothered having to go out to the end of the driveway in rain and snow to pick up a paper every day that I have no intention of reading. Maybe I don’t want to be bothered having to collect said unread papers, and stack them around the house for 2 weeks waiting for the recycling collection. Maybe I think it is a waste to pay for something I don’t want, don’t need, will not use, and have to throw away in the recycling. As a consumer, it’s my choice. As a business, they have no respect for their consumers.

I understand that they are trying to drive up their subscription numbers which I would imagine affect their ad rates, but you don’t need to be a Harvard MBA to realize it’s not good business to force your customers to take something they don’t want.

The only way to stop the harrassment was to end the subscription and remind them when they call that they are violating the federal and state “do not call” lists.

If they would let me (and doubtless many others) buy what I WANT to buy and nothing more, they might actually have more success.
Bulldog - December 18, 2008

Yeah, when my father visited me for Thanksgiving he brought along his copy of the Post-Gazette. I was amazed at the “flimsiness” of the content.
Dan - December 18, 2008

Within a year, the P-G will be nothing more than 12 daily pages of “Cat’s Call”, with a few more pages containing the previous day’s doings of Angelina Jolie and TC the stadium vendor.
Bob (URL) - December 19, 2008

Tell it like it is, Togyer.

As another data points when it comes to blogs and advertising, the Comet runs one text ad for Pittsburgh Security Systems (a website) that netted me $300 for a 6-month run. It came in totally unsolicited and out of the blue. Makes me wonder what would be possible if I really “pounded the pavement” and tried to scurry up local advertisers.
Bram R (URL) - December 21, 2008

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