Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Sunday morning and I’m falling

Posted by metaphorical on 17 March 2007

This was Sunday morning: First, the bagel store on 84th Street and 37th Avenue.

“Twelve. 2 plain, 2 poppy, 2 onion, 2 garlic, 4 bialy.” You always tell them how many in total, first, so they know what size brown paper bag to put them in.

“Do you need cream cheese?” They know that 11-year-old boys forget stuff.

“No.” My mother would have gone to another place entirely, Murray’s, the day before for nova scotia (the unsalty kind of lox), kippered salmon, cream cheese (Philadelphia brand, of course), whipped butter if needed any.

If it were cold, I would stash the big bag of bagels in my coat. This kept them warm, but kept me warm too. Though I made the Sunday morning bagel and newspaper run just about every Sunday, for years, in my mind I’m always 11 and it’s always a November morning, cold, damp, and overcast.

Next came the newsstand, Rajah’s, on 78th Street, opposite my elementary school. I run there. Keep the bagels warm. Once I’m loaded down with newspapers, I won’t be able to run. But Rajah’s is only a block and a half from home. The New York Times, and the Long Island Press, mostly for the comics, and because you always buy your local paper. By now, my mother has turned on the oven.

Experience has already taught me to check for the Magazine section, because if it’s missing, my father can’t do the puzzle, and I’d have to go back out to get it. And I check the sports section, because that’s the most important one for me. In the summer there’s the batting and pitching stats for the entire major league, and in the winter there’s the college football scores, even though I watched “College Football Scoreboard” with Chris Schenkel the day before on ABC. You can’t study the scores on television.

The LI Press wraps the comics on the outside of the paper, and Peanuts is always always above the fold. I read it on the way home, looking up carefully when crossing Roosevelt Avenue. When she hears me at the front door, my mother turns off the oven. I run upstairs, I drop the papers on the counter, pull the bagels out of my coat, and throw them into warm oven, brown paper bag and all. The table is set, the nova and kippered salmon and cream cheese and butter are already out.

Coffee is brewed, milk is on the table. My father is already pulling the magazine section out of the paper. He pulls out the sports section for me, and the Arts & Leisure for my mom. My sister is at the comics. Sunday morning, 1967.

I thought of all that while looking at the Project for for Excellence in Journalism’s “State of the News Media 2007″ report.

Newspapers have a tough time making the case that their business is headed in the right direction. The year 2006 was terrible in many respects, and there seems little prospect that 2007 will be much better.

The best that the industry can hope for is that some easing of costs — both paper and people — will improve earnings and that they can demonstrate continued strong growth in the range of their online and niche offerings and in ad revenues in the new media.

Even that last seems in doubt.

There were several elements to the “grim 2006 picture.” Here are two:

*Pre-tax earnings at print newspapers were off about 8.4% compared with 2005, and that was not an especially good year either.

*Ad revenues were flat , despite contributions from online and niche publications that continue to grow at an average rate of 20% to 30% rate. Optimistic industry sources are predicting a slightly more positive 2007 for advertising. Most analysts, however, forecast that ad revenues will be down by 1 to 2%.

The basic problem is that readership declined, and has been declining for years. Here’s the basic graph. Though the drop is as gentle as the bunny slope, a percent or so a year, year in and year out, adds up.

newsp-daily-sunday.jpg

I can’t remember for sure, but I think the Times was 60 cents back then, and the Press was 25 cents on Sunday. I know the Sunday Daily News was 30 cents three years later, when I was selling the Night Owl edition in bars on Northern Boulevard on Saturday nights. Today the daily paper is a buck and the Sunday paper is $3.50. That’s not out of line. Inflation calculators say that $3.50 in 2006 was $0.57 in 1996. It feels like a lot of money, though, maybe because in 1966 we had only one phone bill, not two, and weren’t paying for television (or the Internet) at all.

Anyway, revenue is down, so papers have been trying to salvage profits by cutting costs.

Newspapers have been downsizing everything from their staff counts to the dimensions of the paper to the breadth of their coverage and the range of their circulation area. All of that flirts with the danger of chasing away readers from an inferior product. Executives argue that they must live within means, but some are also cutting way back on business-side staffing and circulation promotion, which will likely further depress circulation.

The grimmest stat by far is the age demographic. Take a look:

Newspaper readership, by age

The short take is that people under 35 aren’t reading newspapers. More precisely, they’re reading them at hardly more than half the rate of people over 75. (Though it’s worth noticing that even the rate for people 65 years old is declining.) Newspapers need to start getting money from people young people, before all their old readers die off. The window of opportunity for that to happen is probably only about five years wide. Fortunately, I think there’s hope that that’s enough. More on that tomorrow.

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5 Responses to “Sunday morning and I’m falling”

  1. digglahhh said

    CJR had a somewhat lengthy piece about the future of papers this past issue (and seemingly every past issue now). I’d link it, but its not good enough to be as long as it is.

    The article was a little more optimistic than I’d be, but it did make some good points. One good was how reliant many blogs are on newspapers for content. This is often omitted from the blogs will take over the world argument.

    It touched on the falling profits too, and briefly stated something I have always agreed with. Major news conglomerates have gotten entirely too accustomed to making windfall profits. I’d take it slightly further. I don’t know where this point is, but I’m willing to assert that there is a tipping point where profit margin starts to become inversely proportionate with quality.

    I don’t have enough understanding of economics to know how much profit a news organization needs to or should be able to make. But I know that if you replaced the fluff that moves papers with hard, well-crafted journalism, you’d both lower profits and improve quality.

    Perhaps the industry becoming less profitable could pave the way for higher quality journalism. Of course, I’d regret to see high quality journalism become a niche market (although you have to ask if it already has and we are unwilling to admit it).

  2. Nice. I would have liked a hint about the newspapers at the beginning, and/or a “return” at the end, but that’s me. I told my final project advisor how one instructor would say “repetitive” and the other would say “nice return”–over the identical passage.

  3. I don’t know about repetitive, but in this case I thought it would feel like a hammer over the head. I could be wrong though. At least one of my writing workshop instructors would have wanted it.

  4. I was thinking about my response, and it’s a question of quantity. Proportionately, you have a lot of bagel in this piece, so I expected bagels to return.

    Or it could be my middle-aged brain, which on some days gets lost at the end of long sentences, even…

  5. deeplyflawedbuttrying said

    I blogged about the fact that I have realised my sunday paper tradition is dying, and being replaced by RSS feeds…tis a sad day that I never thought I would see. http://deeplyflawedbuttrying.wordpress.com/

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