20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
5
2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
6
2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

All systems down

“This isn’t new blood for the news industry but journalism dialysis — old blood pumped back into the system for a fresh start.”

If I were living my best professor life, I’d wake up late every Sunday morning, grab off my doorstep a print copy of the Sunday New York Times and maybe a Chicago Tribune — I live in Central Illinois — and begin the process of a leisurely, coffee-accompanied weekend ritual of relaxation and information.

This scenario is impossible, however, for two practical reasons. First, I have a preschooler. Second, the local newspaper in Champaign–Urbana, The News-Gazette, is “restructuring” and thus, for now, will no longer deliver the Times or the Trib — not daily, not even on Sundays. (It’s also killing its Monday print edition.)

What’s becoming increasingly clear to me is that this is going to be the year — and possibly the decade — where the many interdependencies of the news industry come into full display, with particular consequences for the newspaper industry.

If newspaper chains are seeking mergers and economies of scale in a last-ditch effort to cut costs, it won’t happen without consequences, as Ken Doctor has been arguing here at Nieman Lab. At this point, it’s likely that we will see the full negative effects of what happens when this strategy crashes and burns, albeit in unexpected ways. And in particular, what we’ll see will remind us that that news is still an industrial process, with actual machinery, complex distribution systems, and a labor force that includes more than just journalists.

If we take systems theory as a guiding metaphor — as the Democracy Fund and other funders, scholars, and pundits do — inputs and outputs can have all sorts of negative and positive consequences. But all too often, we’ve focused our attention on the impacts of a news ecology in a single city or location, with a particular focus on audiences and what happens when the input of local news is threatened.

The growing nationalization of contemporary journalism points to all systems down. For now, I can see three major interdependencies falling apart in the short term horizon.

Distribution cuts emerge, hurt everyone

The New York Times suffers a bit if The News-Gazette won’t deliver it. That valuable weekender print-plus-digital subscription will take a hit, in a scenario that is likely repeating in markets across the country.

Some of us have mocked newspapers for spending millions on new printing presses deep into the audience’s move to digital, wondering what those fancy new presses would do even further into print’s decline.

What we don’t think enough about, though, is the fact that newspapers still make money from their print papers (full stop). And many local and regional newspapers make money printing everyone else’s newspapers on their presses — the Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times — and these agreements between large national outlets and local newspapers to print and deliver their news has been part and parcel what has helped enable the nationalization of these newspapers. (Obviously, there is the internet, but we’re talking about the long game.)

The deadlines agreements set at these local presses — likely hashed out by printers’ unions, industry honchos, and national papers — determines the print deadlines that the Times, the Journal, and so forth have to abide by.

Printing other people’s stuff using your technology is a bit like the old-school version of running a platform. National papers are dependent on these agreements to get their print newspapers to wider geographic communities. When the owners of the platform make a change, distribution to consumers gets disrupted. Some newspapers, like mine, will make the decision to drop these agreements to allow deeper cost-cutting (newspapers are industrial, requiring machinery, trucks, and labor), and in the process, I suppose I’ll now get my Sunday Times by mail or just give up on it.

There are also other issues as deadlines get tighter and press runs get maximized. The huge economies of scale in a giant chain like Gannett make it look ridiculous when it comes to say, failing to print out a timely celebratory print edition after a team wins a massive victory, as Nashville’s The Tennessean failed to do when Vanderbilt won the College World Series.

Old debts catch up with new owners

Years ago, when I was doing my research on newsrooms moving newsrooms, I visited The Miami Herald just as it was about to leave its beautiful, mid-century-modern headquarters on Biscayne Bay (which have been destroyed by a wrecking ball). My heart ached in that romantic way it can when it comes to change and newspapers: Why sell such a beautiful building?

There’s little room left for nostalgic romance in the newspaper industry, and one of the reasons McClatchy had to sell the building wasn’t about cutting expenses of current production — it’s about dealing with its debt. That debt came mostly in its poorly timed deal to buy Knight Ridder in 2006, including major pension obligations.

While I have no idea what happened to my Philadelphia Inquirer pension, my short employment stint there probably didn’t put much in my retirement coffers. But those from the 1980s “golden era” of newspapers who have reached retirement age have pensions, often established through strong union contracts (#okboomer). And even if you’re an Alden Capital gutting everything, there are strong legal protections against balking on pension payments (see the current scenario at GE, for example).

So here’s where systems crash — all the old debt that we Nieman Lab readers often forget about as we focus on content and trust and audience strategies and new technology. Old-school company debt — the kind that comes from raising capital to expand — isn’t always a bad thing. But pension debt in particular can’t be dispensed with as easily as a newspaper building or printing plant. The pension issue we can see now — but I wonder what other hidden debt exists that we have yet to really understand as weighing down companies.

Invisible labor becomes visible

Journalists aren’t the only ones losing their jobs at newspapers. Some of the most contingent labor is un-unionized newspaper carriers, who get paid by some newspapers by the number of copies they deliver.

I spent a night observing delivery drivers in Omaha after the newsroom ended its afternoon edition and shifted to a morning print delivery schedule, and my heart broke a little. Newspaper delivery is an ideal job for single moms — at least in the sense that no babysitter is required. At 1 a.m. on a weekday, a mom was bagging newspapers while her young son listened on headphones to Disney radio. He could come with her on her route, sleep in the car, and she wouldn’t need a sitter. He wasn’t the only kid around — a number of tweens were watching and occasionally helping their parents speed up the process.

Despite all my years of field research in newsrooms, I found myself ill-equipped to ask these people how they were dealing with cutbacks to their routes and thus, their bottom line. This level of fragility, delivering papers early in the morning to dark houses — this is the kind of fragility we need to think more about. A good year might add $10,000 to the household income, taxed, I was told.

Delivery drivers are now taping notes onto their newspapers about the cutbacks. I wish I still had my D.C.-area carrier’s Christmas card — talking about the cutbacks and the loss of income and not-so subtly asking for a bonus — to share here. Their visibility will grow, slowly, as we take notice to these cards, cues, and Post-It notes, and this contigent labor in the news industry deserve our attention.

It’s my guess that truck drivers will face the same fate, and that printers — in many cases kept employed by union contracts — will see many of these protections gutted and, perhaps, their unions dissolved.

College-educated journalists can find new jobs, even if they’re not in journalism. The way local news cutbacks hurt democracy is far more abstract than what happens to single moms making a few pennies off every newspaper they deliver.

New newsroom jobs are gross gains, not net

Finally, we celebrate each and every new journalism job added to the news industry as a tangible marker of an effort to save democracy — especially when these are jobs that are bolstered by nonprofit efforts.

What will become increasingly clear is that these gains are at best a net zero for any local news ecology. If you look at any nonprofit that gets money from a big national funder, chances are good you’ll find someone at the helm who has worked at a major news outlet in the area. They’ve left their job at a newspaper or a TV station to go work at a non-profit or digital-first startup. This isn’t new blood for the news industry but journalism dialysis — old blood pumped back into the system for a fresh start. Think about The Athletic as emblematic of this trend, with all those great sports writers taken out of metro newspapers.

Perhaps we should count all the new, young hires that are coming into communities through Report for America and other efforts. But these young hires would have once been hired at a local community newspaper — new blood for a net gain of journalists, at best. The system as it stands is jostling resources and this will become increasingly clear as local news faces growing market pressure.

Systems spiral

This, then, is my sober prediction for 2020: that the news industry taken as a system, as a whole, national and local, will start to suffer in increasingly obvious ways from the misfortunes of one of the inputs into it. In political coverage, we’re already feeling the effects of cuts — relied-upon local intel gone, statewide newspaper polls cut — and this too is evidence of national news suffering from local cutbacks.

I’ve just started thinking about this idea of the interdependency of news, national and local, and the more I think about it, the more worried I think we should all be.

Nikki Usher is an associate professor in the University of Illinois.

If I were living my best professor life, I’d wake up late every Sunday morning, grab off my doorstep a print copy of the Sunday New York Times and maybe a Chicago Tribune — I live in Central Illinois — and begin the process of a leisurely, coffee-accompanied weekend ritual of relaxation and information.

This scenario is impossible, however, for two practical reasons. First, I have a preschooler. Second, the local newspaper in Champaign–Urbana, The News-Gazette, is “restructuring” and thus, for now, will no longer deliver the Times or the Trib — not daily, not even on Sundays. (It’s also killing its Monday print edition.)

What’s becoming increasingly clear to me is that this is going to be the year — and possibly the decade — where the many interdependencies of the news industry come into full display, with particular consequences for the newspaper industry.

If newspaper chains are seeking mergers and economies of scale in a last-ditch effort to cut costs, it won’t happen without consequences, as Ken Doctor has been arguing here at Nieman Lab. At this point, it’s likely that we will see the full negative effects of what happens when this strategy crashes and burns, albeit in unexpected ways. And in particular, what we’ll see will remind us that that news is still an industrial process, with actual machinery, complex distribution systems, and a labor force that includes more than just journalists.

If we take systems theory as a guiding metaphor — as the Democracy Fund and other funders, scholars, and pundits do — inputs and outputs can have all sorts of negative and positive consequences. But all too often, we’ve focused our attention on the impacts of a news ecology in a single city or location, with a particular focus on audiences and what happens when the input of local news is threatened.

The growing nationalization of contemporary journalism points to all systems down. For now, I can see three major interdependencies falling apart in the short term horizon.

Distribution cuts emerge, hurt everyone

The New York Times suffers a bit if The News-Gazette won’t deliver it. That valuable weekender print-plus-digital subscription will take a hit, in a scenario that is likely repeating in markets across the country.

Some of us have mocked newspapers for spending millions on new printing presses deep into the audience’s move to digital, wondering what those fancy new presses would do even further into print’s decline.

What we don’t think enough about, though, is the fact that newspapers still make money from their print papers (full stop). And many local and regional newspapers make money printing everyone else’s newspapers on their presses — the Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times — and these agreements between large national outlets and local newspapers to print and deliver their news has been part and parcel what has helped enable the nationalization of these newspapers. (Obviously, there is the internet, but we’re talking about the long game.)

The deadlines agreements set at these local presses — likely hashed out by printers’ unions, industry honchos, and national papers — determines the print deadlines that the Times, the Journal, and so forth have to abide by.

Printing other people’s stuff using your technology is a bit like the old-school version of running a platform. National papers are dependent on these agreements to get their print newspapers to wider geographic communities. When the owners of the platform make a change, distribution to consumers gets disrupted. Some newspapers, like mine, will make the decision to drop these agreements to allow deeper cost-cutting (newspapers are industrial, requiring machinery, trucks, and labor), and in the process, I suppose I’ll now get my Sunday Times by mail or just give up on it.

There are also other issues as deadlines get tighter and press runs get maximized. The huge economies of scale in a giant chain like Gannett make it look ridiculous when it comes to say, failing to print out a timely celebratory print edition after a team wins a massive victory, as Nashville’s The Tennessean failed to do when Vanderbilt won the College World Series.

Old debts catch up with new owners

Years ago, when I was doing my research on newsrooms moving newsrooms, I visited The Miami Herald just as it was about to leave its beautiful, mid-century-modern headquarters on Biscayne Bay (which have been destroyed by a wrecking ball). My heart ached in that romantic way it can when it comes to change and newspapers: Why sell such a beautiful building?

There’s little room left for nostalgic romance in the newspaper industry, and one of the reasons McClatchy had to sell the building wasn’t about cutting expenses of current production — it’s about dealing with its debt. That debt came mostly in its poorly timed deal to buy Knight Ridder in 2006, including major pension obligations.

While I have no idea what happened to my Philadelphia Inquirer pension, my short employment stint there probably didn’t put much in my retirement coffers. But those from the 1980s “golden era” of newspapers who have reached retirement age have pensions, often established through strong union contracts (#okboomer). And even if you’re an Alden Capital gutting everything, there are strong legal protections against balking on pension payments (see the current scenario at GE, for example).

So here’s where systems crash — all the old debt that we Nieman Lab readers often forget about as we focus on content and trust and audience strategies and new technology. Old-school company debt — the kind that comes from raising capital to expand — isn’t always a bad thing. But pension debt in particular can’t be dispensed with as easily as a newspaper building or printing plant. The pension issue we can see now — but I wonder what other hidden debt exists that we have yet to really understand as weighing down companies.

Invisible labor becomes visible

Journalists aren’t the only ones losing their jobs at newspapers. Some of the most contingent labor is un-unionized newspaper carriers, who get paid by some newspapers by the number of copies they deliver.

I spent a night observing delivery drivers in Omaha after the newsroom ended its afternoon edition and shifted to a morning print delivery schedule, and my heart broke a little. Newspaper delivery is an ideal job for single moms — at least in the sense that no babysitter is required. At 1 a.m. on a weekday, a mom was bagging newspapers while her young son listened on headphones to Disney radio. He could come with her on her route, sleep in the car, and she wouldn’t need a sitter. He wasn’t the only kid around — a number of tweens were watching and occasionally helping their parents speed up the process.

Despite all my years of field research in newsrooms, I found myself ill-equipped to ask these people how they were dealing with cutbacks to their routes and thus, their bottom line. This level of fragility, delivering papers early in the morning to dark houses — this is the kind of fragility we need to think more about. A good year might add $10,000 to the household income, taxed, I was told.

Delivery drivers are now taping notes onto their newspapers about the cutbacks. I wish I still had my D.C.-area carrier’s Christmas card — talking about the cutbacks and the loss of income and not-so subtly asking for a bonus — to share here. Their visibility will grow, slowly, as we take notice to these cards, cues, and Post-It notes, and this contigent labor in the news industry deserve our attention.

It’s my guess that truck drivers will face the same fate, and that printers — in many cases kept employed by union contracts — will see many of these protections gutted and, perhaps, their unions dissolved.

College-educated journalists can find new jobs, even if they’re not in journalism. The way local news cutbacks hurt democracy is far more abstract than what happens to single moms making a few pennies off every newspaper they deliver.

New newsroom jobs are gross gains, not net

Finally, we celebrate each and every new journalism job added to the news industry as a tangible marker of an effort to save democracy — especially when these are jobs that are bolstered by nonprofit efforts.

What will become increasingly clear is that these gains are at best a net zero for any local news ecology. If you look at any nonprofit that gets money from a big national funder, chances are good you’ll find someone at the helm who has worked at a major news outlet in the area. They’ve left their job at a newspaper or a TV station to go work at a non-profit or digital-first startup. This isn’t new blood for the news industry but journalism dialysis — old blood pumped back into the system for a fresh start. Think about The Athletic as emblematic of this trend, with all those great sports writers taken out of metro newspapers.

Perhaps we should count all the new, young hires that are coming into communities through Report for America and other efforts. But these young hires would have once been hired at a local community newspaper — new blood for a net gain of journalists, at best. The system as it stands is jostling resources and this will become increasingly clear as local news faces growing market pressure.

Systems spiral

This, then, is my sober prediction for 2020: that the news industry taken as a system, as a whole, national and local, will start to suffer in increasingly obvious ways from the misfortunes of one of the inputs into it. In political coverage, we’re already feeling the effects of cuts — relied-upon local intel gone, statewide newspaper polls cut — and this too is evidence of national news suffering from local cutbacks.

I’ve just started thinking about this idea of the interdependency of news, national and local, and the more I think about it, the more worried I think we should all be.

Nikki Usher is an associate professor in the University of Illinois.

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