Review By: Steve Halvonik
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is featured on the cover and above the fold in “Metro Dailies in the Age of Multimedia Journalism,’’ Mary Lou Nemanic’s provocative book about the technological, financial, and managerial issues vexing the newspaper industry.
Ms. Nemanic, a communications professor at Penn State-Altoona, praises the PG for a couple things. She claims its modern newsroom is a design “leader’’ for facilitating collaborative multiplatform journalism. And she applauds ownership for its “nuanced and gradual” transition from print to digital. However, she said that management’s bitter feud with its union employees means “the newspaper still faces ongoing challenges with labor negotiations, journalistic autonomy and editorial accountability that overshadow its continuing viability.’’
Temple University Press ($27.95)
In many ways, the PG typifies an industry still in flux. More than a decade after the Great Recession and the rise of the internet robbed it of readers and advertising revenue, the industry is still grappling to find a new and sustainable business model. As a result, newspapers have shed about half their newsroom jobs since 2008. Cities like New Orleans have lost their daily paper while others, like Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, have seen daily print editions reduced to three or four a week. The PG recently announced it will eliminate Friday print editions in February. Soon Sunday may be the only day with a print edition.
What makes Ms. Nemanic’s book provocative is its contrariness. While the general consensus is that newspapers aren’t long for this world, the author is surprisingly bullish on the industry’s future. She believes that newspapers will survive if only because publishers need to hang on to their lucrative print advertising revenue. They’re finally realizing that $100 popup ads are no substitute for $1,000 display ads in the Sunday paper.
How important does print advertising remain for newspaper publishers? Ms. Nemanic cited a study showing that the Cleveland Plain-Dealer still generated 80% of its publisher’s advertising revenue even after it reduced home delivery to four days a week.
The enduring popularity of print – 71% of newspaper subscribers prefer or only use the print edition, according to the American Press Institute — proves “that there is a future for newspapers as long as newspaper companies are willing to integrate their print and online operations, make a commitment to visual journalism across platforms, make a commitment to journalistic integrity and autonomy, and retain staff sizes substantial enough to allow for quality content,’’ Ms. Nemanic writes.
She excoriates Advance (nee Newhouse) Publications for rushing headlong into a digital-first publishing strategy without devising a viable business plan. Advance’s mismanagement led to the collapse and sale of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and to deep newsroom cuts at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
Twenty years of online experiments have been underwhelming for newspapers, Ms. Nemanic concludes.
She holds up the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a successful model for medium-sized dailies that the Post-Gazette should emulate. It’s an “audience-first’’ strategy that strikes a balance between print and digital platforms.
“We’ve not cut back on our news well,’’ said Mike Klingensmith, the Star-Tribune’s CEO. “That has helped us maintain readership while we increase digital income.’’
Ms. Nemanic’s thesis is compelling, if not entirely convincing, and it comes with a couple of caveats. First, the Star-Tribune partnered in a nonprofit study with Temple University, publisher of this book. This raises at least the appearance of a possible conflict, which the author never seeks to address.
Second, most of the interviewees she quotes directly are newsroom personnel with a vested interest in seeing print survive. There’s little feedback from the boardroom, where the fate of newspapers is ultimately decided — save for a 2-year-old prediction from former New York Times CEO Mark Thompson that print will be dead in a decade.
Post-Gazette readers would surely be interested in learning the Block family’s plans for the paper’s future. They won’t find it here.
Steve Halvonik is a former Post-Gazette reporter and editor who teaches journalism at Point Park University.