Okay, let's go back to happier times. Say 1990. The world of newspapers looked good. Newsroom employment had just peaked historically at 56,900, a number it would not yet see again. Daily and Sunday household penetration had stabilized at about 65%, after a long drop. Revenues and profits were good, presaging a great decade ahead. All we had to worry about was a downturn in the economy, but we knew there'd be another peak after a valley.
Say, we then heard about this great new idea. The journalism we create could be sent anywhere in the world, beyond the reach of our circulation trucks, freely read where little journalism had gone before, even penetrating those neighborhoods whose readership was low. It could be read on little, portable devices and in schools. You might even run across our stuff on cable TV or in an elevator. Our audience could grow well beyond the one-sies and two-sies of traditional circulation sales pressure. William Randolph Hearst, Captain James Kirk and Alvin Toffler all rolled into one impossible fantasy.
That idea, seemed like something suited for X-Files, or some super-secret government project, or some cardboard lunacy of people like early Knight Ridder visionary Roger Fidler. We now know of course that it was a time of fetal Internet development. In a short decade and a half since then, the Internet has come to revolutionize the whole distribution end of our news business. Far from celebrating it, newspaper companies are coming face to face with their own mortality. One, Knight Ridder, has blinked, and in a whisk of time, has disappeared. Tribune has taken one look in the mirror, and dares hardly take another. McClatchy likes its latest reflection, but may pull the curtains on the next couple of quarters.
So as the greatest ability to find readers in the history of the printed world has become a reality, consider this irony: news companies are largely creating less and less in a time of more and more.
How much less?
Well, the New York Times' latest cutback, announced yesterday, gives us some new insight. In slashing production costs, the Times is joining much of the rest of the press in cutting page size. In cutting an inch-and-a-half per page, the Times said it would be devoting 11 per cent less space to news. Bill Keller, the Times executive editor, said the company will add back more news pages to make up about half the difference. Five per cent less news in print. Just recently, the Wall Street Journal announced it too was adopting the thinner profile, resulting in a 10 per cent reduction in news space.
If you look at the newsprint consumption numbers, they are dropping quickly. Newsprint usage will come in around 10 million metric tons for U.S. papers, down from 12 million just six years ago. That's more than 15 per cent, of course some of that is space that was dedicated to ads. Newsprint usage of course shouldn't be the only proxy of news production, but it bears watching.
Newsroom staff -- even without accounting for dark art of churn -- will probably drop close to 53000 by the end of the year. That too is a 5 percent drop from that 2000 high.
So we'll say conservatively there's been a 5 per cent drop in news production.
Let's call it the Bagel and Lox Paradox. You know how over the last generation, bagels have beefed up, more air, more additives -- cranberries? -- and the smoked salmon portions have gotten smaller, as it's gotten pricier.
Consider the Internet the bagel, a seemingly ever-expanding universe. Consider the lox the news and information -- the content we crave. Much more room on that bagel for the good stuff, but less good stuff going on the bagel. And as anyone who enjoys a good nosh knows, less is not more, no matter how you slice it.
The Bagel and Lox Paradox may also explain that neurosis, verging on dread, infecting the nation's newsrooms. It's that vague sense that something is going terribly wrong. Journalists want to fully participate in the country's life, bringing their skills to the world in constant change and creation, but they feel increasingly smaller, less important.
There are many good solutions out there for enlarging journalism -- embrace new distribution business models, brand more great content, re-wed online advertising to online content -- but time is running short to reverse the paradox. It's ultimately a question of market share, mind share and share of the civic conversation, a conversation that it couldn't hurt having over old-fashioned bagel sandwiches.