The chain gang contributed to decline of local newspapers


Good afternoon,

Last week’s column on layoffs at the News Journal led to a number of comments on the state of local newspapers.

The standard explanations – the Internet and declines in display-classified advertising – were brought up, but the problems go much deeper.

Jeremy Littau, a print veteran who is now a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania sent out of a series of tweets that offered interesting insights.

He takes note of chain ownership, especially when companies became publicly traded and beholden to Wall Street contributed to the decline.

Returns of 30 cents on a dollar were not uncommon, especially at papers like The News Journal, which had little or no TV competition.

Littau tweets that some of that money that should have been invested for a future that was already apparent in the 1990s was instead returned to shareholders or used to acquire other properties.

(It worked out OK for some over the short term for employees who bought into stock plans.

Gannett profited handsomely by paying what at the time was an eye-popping price for the News Journal.

The sale by du Pont family interests was not good for Delaware as the chain while paying adequate wages and employing talented journalists, did little to deal with the red flags that began to appear.

Larger than life CEO Al Neuharth, launched USA Today, a colorful paper that should have provided a blueprint for other Gannett dailies.

For some reason, the lessons learned (short stories on routine items and solid graphics) did not always make their way to Delaware and other markets.

The elites saw USA Today as an example of fast food journalism, along the way earning the less than flatteringnickname – McPaper.

Revolving door management at or near the top often focused on corporate politics or their next job.

Therevolving door contributed to a lack of investment in technology and people. Many of the best and brightest moved to more innovative industries.

I was not among the superstars but did exit the daily side in the late 1980s, in part because I saw more interesting opportunities in niche publications.

As far back as the early ’80s, signs of malaise were beginning to surface. Long editorial meetings came to few conclusions in dealing with the inescapable fact that once a print reader died, no would come along to take his or her place.

As Littau notes in the tweets (see below) newspapers began to run out of runway in the 1990s. The decline moved to the crisis stage during and after the recession of 2009.

Enjoy your Tuesday. This newsletter returns on Wednesday. – Doug Rainey, chief content officer.

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