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December 1, 2008

Ailing Newspaper Industry Cutting Off Its Own Limbs to Try to Survive


“Made in America” took on new meaning after a Maureen Dowd column in the Sunday New York Times revealed that one of the nation’s newspaper chains is looking to consolidate operations, and perhaps outsource them.


Consolidation is not a new thing in the newspaper industry. As family papers have been eaten by chains, which in turn were eaten by progressively bigger chains, management looked for ways to make operations run more efficiently and cost-effectively.


This has been driven by news like last week’s ad revenue projections, which estimate that the industry as a whole lost about $2 billion over the third quarter. With all eyes riveted on the credit markets, what’s gone unnoticed is the death of the industry that informs us.


Dowd’s column included the revelation that the chief of one of the nation’s newspaper chains – MediaNews Group – is looking for a rather creative way to cut personnel costs. They are considering consolidating the chain’s copy desk operations – where stories are edited and placed on pages – to a single location.


There’s nothing especially novel or new about this. The logical first step upon purchasing a new group of properties is always to find ways to save money by consolidating redundant operations. Most of the time, the chain consolidates close to its main headquarters. MediaNews, according to Dowd’s column, has already outsourced much of its newspaper operations overseas, and wouldn’t rule out creating one news desk for all of MediaNews’s papers . . . overseas.


For years, those who’ve remained working at local newspapers have taken some solace in thinking that there was no way to outsource the work of a local newspaper to foreign shores. Those days were apparently an illusion.


The case for not doing so is an obvious one, and one illustrated by one of the first publications to outsource its reporting.


Dowd’s column also told the story of a news site in Pasadena, California, which a couple of years ago decided to hire freelance writers in India to do everything from updating the community calendar to covering city council meetings. The meetings are streamed over the Internet, and a correspondent in India writes a news story according to what’s happened.


In her column, after noting that the Indian correspondents missed two Pasadena City Council members walk out in protest, Dowd asked, “How significant is it?”


The answer is that it is very significant, the least reason for which is that a potentially important news story went unreported. The second obvious reason is that someone living in India knows none of the important cultural or historical issues that might make a seemingly innocuous news event a really big deal to local people in Pasadena. The same can be said about trying to outsource news desk operations across the ocean. What makes a local newspaper important to a local community is that it caters to the people living in that community, something that you can’t achieve on the cheap.


What this represents is individual newspaper chains faced with a very ugly, ugly dilemma.


Managers and owners who look to outsourcing say it’s necessary in order for the publication to come out the other end leaner and more reflective of a modern publication.


Unfortunately, the meat and fat were cut away long ago, and what remains are the essential ingredients for the thing to sustain its own life. Offshoring elements fundamental to the news process – that is, news gathering and reporting, editing and page design – is a desperation move, a sign of how sick the entire thing has become.


Offshoring them isn’t a sign of a company losing unnecessary weight to become leaner and scrappier, but a sign of an industry so sick that it is cutting off limbs in vain hopes of saving the rest of the body.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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