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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 01:58 am

Newspaper next

Tough times call for rethinking and asking new questions

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The news about traditional newspapering can only be described as dismal. Last week the editor of the Chicago Tribune and the publisher of the Los Angeles Times stepped down from their jobs as their newspapers were preparing for deep cuts in newsroom staff. The Wall Street Journal announced the departure of another half-dozen members of the editorial staff, on the heels of other layoffs over the past four months. Closer to home, the stock-rating company Morningstar said July 15 that shares of GateHouse Media, owner of the State Journal-Register, have steeply declined in value. "Because of the company's exposure to a challenging advertising environment, a debt-heavy balance sheet, and declining cash flows, we think the equity shares could be worthless," wrote stock analyst Tom Corbett.

With all this turmoil among the big boys, our friends ask us, "How is Illinois Times doing?" Our answer: Not great but not bad.

The industry disruption really is a case of "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." The companies cited above are all burdened with debt, so they're having to pay the piper for expanding their holdings at a time when most newspapers are contracting. Most are laying off staff, getting smaller even as they try to get smarter about how they approach their business tasks. National and regional advertising dollars are shrinking, and newspaper management must please external shareholders. On top of that, they face the challenges all newspapers face — economic downturn, increased competition from the Internet and other media, and shifting interest in public affairs and traditional news. This is a good time for IT to be small, independent, nearly debt-free, and quick on its feet.

Dislocation for the dailies has spawned an industry of studies and consultants offering advice on what to do. One of these studies, a project of the American Press Institute called "Newspaper Next," urges the daily newspaper to stop thinking of itself as a newspaper company and start thinking as a communications company or even — with help from the Internet — "a local information and connection utility." Such a communications company can perform certain "megajobs," such as helping people make good spending decisions and helping them find things to do.

Here at IT we've always been careful — maybe too careful — about looking for new ways to sell our product, for fear of selling our soul. We're eager to get new ideas flowing but don't want to lose our way. Can we give readers what they want at the same time we give them news they need? How can we profit without pandering?

On this subject I consult the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who devoted a chapter to the media in his 2003 book Our Culture of Pandering. He wrote: "Long-term, quality news coverage pays off. But to business executives who want to look better and better in each quarterly report, the simpler way is to reduce staff and to pander to whatever will satisfy the hunger of a large audience."

Asking readers and advertisers what they want is not pandering, says Laura Dell, an Evanston-based consultant to this and other newsweeklies, who offers a seminar on "Muscling Through Tough Times." She says her hardest job is convincing newsweekly people that there is a need to change: "It's just smart to understand what your readers and advertisers need and want. Then you say, 'Here's what I can and want to do.' You can choose whether or not you want to deliver on any specific item." It turns out to be even more important to understand the needs of nonreaders and nonadvertisers. "Thousands of people are not picking up your paper," she says. "Find out why not. I don't think that's pandering."

Dell continues: "This is not about lacking confidence in what you are doing. It is about revitalizing your connection with the community. Your paper is 33 years old. It's time to dust off the idea: What can you do better?"

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.