It’s been a couple of weeks since Chattanooga Times Free Press Chairman and Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. said, in a letter to readers, that advertiser revenues have fallen too low to sustain the paper and that it will be necessary for the TFP to “rely more heavily on readers and subscribers” to make up the difference. Days later, the paper also announced that it was partnering with a digital media organization to offer new services and bring in more revenue. Since then, I’ve heard and read numerous people speculate as to why the paper is struggling and what it needs to do to turn things around.
Some people dislike new Free Press editorial page Editor Drew Johnson. Some folks are bemoaning the fact that there are still dueling editorial pages. Some say the quality of the reporting has slipped. Some say there’s too much fluff and not enough hard local news. Others claim the paper is biased. In a letter to Chattanoogan.com, local attorney Barry L. Abbott proposed that the TFP “should give some serious thought toward the prospect of producing a product that the public is willing to pay for to begin with; otherwise, they are just delaying the inevitable.”
A newspaper can’t please everybody, and I can understand some of the criticism of the TFP. But newspapers are struggling across the globe. You can criticize the TFP all you want, but the quality of work coming out of their newsroom is not why the paper is struggling. Their slimmed-down staff still does a great job of covering the region—better in some ways than I’ve ever seen them do in my two decades living here. In fact, for the first time ever, I’ve actually heard young people raving about things the paper is writing. The rub? All of those people read the content online. This might seem like a problem for a company trying to figure out a way to keep its print edition afloat, and it is. But it’s also a good sign. It says that people still appreciate the paper’s work. They just want to decide how they receive it.
The newspaper as we know it is dying. No matter how great a newspaper is, fewer and fewer people are going to buy it or subscribe to it. Sure, some readers—mainly older ones—will answer Hussman’s call, as increased subscription costs are not huge a negative for older readers, who still value a physical copy. But the exact amount of increased revenue the TFP can expect is unknown, and even if a significant number of older readers respond favorably to the increase, counting on receiving these dollars long term not a good idea. Not only is this demographic quite literally dying off, they are also increasingly adapting to new technology. The more time they spend online, the more comfortable they are doing so and the more they learn about what they can do online—including consuming news. Soon, newspapers become something they spend more time recycling than reading.
Abbott has a point: The Times Free Press needs to produce a product that people want. But what is that product, exactly? Like other newspapers, the Times Free Press has broadened its reach in an attempt to retain its relevance. With its online offerings, as well as its community and monthly companion publications, the TFP is now more a news organization than a newspaper. As The Pulse aptly pointed out last week, we’re not sure how much publications like Current or Chatter or Edge or Get Out Chattanooga are helping the TFP’s bottom line, but the company’s renewed, aggressive push toward digital is a wise one, as that is where a growing number of their past and potential audience is now getting their news. Advertisers know this, too, and are now trying to get their messages in front of that shifted audience. Not only is the increased emphasis on digital a smart move, it’s imperative.
Of course, there are no guarantees, and with that shift comes some baggage. Newspapers—the Times Free Press included—have long had a needlessly adversarial relationship with the Internet. Not only did it take the industry forever to shake the view that the Web was a substandard media platform, but that arrogant view also cost them valuable time that could have been better spent adapting, innovating and keeping up with digital upstarts. As Advertising Age points out, newspapers spent years giving away their product for free, supported (but only marginally) by advertising before, in some cases, trying to yank it back behind pay walls. The TFP’s own online history is similarly erratic—and then some. (Do you remember how much they used to charge people to a read a single story online?)
Regardless of its past, however, the TFP could have a solid future even if, as Hussman has hinted might be a reality, it no longer publishes an actual, daily print edition. Though Hussman says that, for now, the paper will continue to be published seven days a week, a three-day-a-week schedule doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
Again, a newspaper can’t please everybody. But the TFP is already not pleasing everybody. Instead of striving to be “the local newspaper of record,” it could strive to be “the local news organization of record,” scaling back on the fluff and the fluffy companion publications, instead focusing on being the fastest and best online newsroom and the strongest and deepest print newsroom. Being first in print is meaningless unless you are first across all mediums, and it’s hard to be first across all mediums unless you are truly breaking news. In this crowded media market, you have to spend a lot of time finding and developing exclusive stories for print—stories that your reporters can’t find and develop if they’re also spending a considerable amount of time writing nonessential pieces for nonessential sections or publications.
Scaling the paper back to three days of papers similar to the papers they’re already publishing would be pointless. Readers might not mind waiting extra days between papers, however, if the papers they did get were better and deeper. Instead of mourning their old model, the TFP could create excitement around the new one.
The TFP should be in the business of selling information, not newsprint. The company’s print revenue is already down. Scaling back on the expenses associated with producing papers that fewer and fewer readers and advertisers are interested in could buy the company some time to refine their digital model while also experimenting with their print one. Sure, there’s no guarantee that this approach will work. But what they’re doing now isn’t, either.
Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) local news, culture, music and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.