April 7, 2009

Like National Trend, Ithaca's Dailies Face Tough Times

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Despite gloom-and-doom headlines across the country about the future of the newspaper industry, Ithaca’s two daily publications — while facing serious economic challenges — do not appear to be in danger of folding anytime soon.
The editors of The Ithaca Journal and The Sun maintain that although they are being forced to adapt to declining advertising revenues, their products will continue to hit newsstands.
The extinction of newspapers has been a frequent conversation of late among publishers and readers alike.
“The news business — and particularly the newspaper business — is in rough shape these days,” said Ken Paulson, who recently resigned as editor in chief of USA Today to assume the role of president and chief operating officer of the Newseum and The Freedom Forum, an organization that advocates for freedom of the press and free speech.
“There seems to be a collective sense both inside and outside the newspaper industry that news in print is about to disappear,” Paulson said. “I think there’s room for some perspective. Yes, it’s true that there have been significant layoffs at America’s newspapers, but there have also been huge layoffs at Home Depot and no one is predicting the demise of hammers.”
Ithaca’s newspapers are not immune to the economic strains facing the nation.
The Ithaca Journal has been forced to make some cuts. The Journal is owned and operated by Gannett Company, the highest-circulating news media corporation in the world.
“There are no particular plans to do anything with the paper that would deprive the community of it on any level,” said Tara Connell, vice president of Gannett’s ContentOne.
ContentOne is “a new company-wide initiative to enhance and improve the way Gannett gathers and delivers the news and information customers want,” according to Business Wire.
“Obviously these are tough times for newspapers,” Connell said. “There is cost-cutting going on, but right now the Ithaca paper is doing okay.”
According to Connell, The Journal has not been forced to make drastic changes in its distribution or production.
“They’ve consolidated some of the other services,” she said. “They’re printing in one place out of Binghamton, for instance, but the paper itself is making money.”
Bruce Estes, The Journal’s managing editor, is optimistic about the future of the paper.
“It’s unlikely that we’ll die. It is likely that we’ll transform,” Estes said.
A significant decrease in advertising revenue, which makes up 70 to 75 percent of The Journal’s total revenue, has been a main source of the paper’s financial strain.
The Sun, which was Ithaca’s only morning newspaper for over a century until The Journal shifted from afternoon to morning publication in the 1990s, has also seen a decrease in advertising.
“The Sun, like newspapers and other industries across the globe, is feeling the ripples of the economy,” Lindsay Bass ’10, The Sun’s business manager, said. “The Sun is facing a decrease in advertising revenue, but we are not deterred by this challenge.”
No major changes to The Sun’s daily product are expected, according to Emily Cohn ’10, editor in chief.
“Fiscal challenges will not threaten our editorial content in any way, either online or in print,” Cohn said. “If anything, such constraints have forced us to reevaluate our methods, challenging us to become more efficient and better aware of costs and benefits.”
According to Estes, The Journal needs a new approach.
“One of the core functions of media in the U.S. is bringing together buyers and sellers,” Estes said. “Those of us in news tend to see it a little differently, as the bringing together of ideas. The marketplace of advertising fuels the marketplace of ideas.”
Estes believes that The Journal needs to develop a new approach to the way it brings consumers and sellers together.
“You can’t do what you did,” he said. “The old model no longer works. Smart people figure out a new model.”
According to Estes the print version of The Journal may eventually become obsolete.
“I bet you it makes it to its 200th birthday [in print],” which will pass in 2015, Estes said.
After that point, The Journal will likely shift to an online-only version, he added.
According to Estes, the news media are conducive to change. “Media is probably the most malleable product our society produces. It changes several times a day,” Estes said.
“It takes courage to try something different — failure is more common than success,” Estes said. “If you’re going to give up, nothing changes, nothing evolves, nothing gets better.”
Media venues across the nation are changing the way they present the news.
“There is no question that for news organizations to thrive, they have to innovate. They can’t cling to past models,” said Jack Marsh, vice president diversity programs for the Freedom Forum.
“There’s this tremendous hunger for news and information, and it keeps increasing. I am confident that there will be a future for news,” Marsh said.
Nonetheless, the future of news will likely be different.
“I don’t think anyone knows exactly what it’s going to look like in five years, certainly not in 10 or 15 years,” Marsh said.
Marsh cited the necessity for news corporations to switch to a “new business model,” in addition to cost-cutting procedures currently taking place on a local level.
According to Marsh, there is currently a misconception about the profitability of newspapers.
“Most newspapers are still profitable — very profitable in fact,” Marsh said.
One of the reasons for the significant drop in most media stocks is that today newspapers that are corporately owned are not as profitable as they used to be, or as CEOs want them to be.
“I think the business model needs to change,” Marsh said.
According to Paulson, technology may not necessarily dictate the future of newspapers.
“Imagine if Gutenberg had invented a digital modem rather than a printing press and that all of our information came to us online,” Paulson said. “Further, imagine if we held a press conference announcing the invention of an intriguing new product called the newspaper. I can see the headlines now: ‘Newspapers threaten future of Google.’ We can dream, can’t we?”
“The point of all this is that we shouldn’t be selling newspapers short — or lose sight of the qualities that make American journalism so critical to our democracy,” Paulson said. “We’re in the middle of the most challenging period in the history of journalism, but I do believe that newspapers — ink on paper — will be around for many years to come.” Paulson said.