Newsies fit to be tied

Media business hit by dropping ad revs, layoffs in '05

In the past year, print journalists found an unlikely subject for their stories: Print journalists.

Newspapers and magazines were fascinated by the departures of Time mag’s Norman Pearlstine and the New York Times’s Judith Miller, as well as Bob Woodward’s speaking up after the unveiling of Deep Throat.

But the new year promises to carry more about the biggest media story last year — which was the business of media. Industry trends that had begun to percolate over the last few years — declining readership, market fragmentation, online primacy — began to bubble over.

With newspaper readers becoming fewer, and ads dropping like flies, layoffs hit papers from the Boston Globe (95) to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (130) to the San Jose Mercury News (52).

Everywhere you looked, print advertising took its ad lumps; at papers and at general interest weeklies and monthlies, drops of double-digit percentages were common. “We’re in the midst of a very painful transition, where the fear is not that print will disappear but that 10% or 20% of the revenue will simply go away,” says media commentator Jon Fine.

Online coin sought to make up the difference, but while pubs tried to adjust to a Web world, the moves were sometimes more preemptive than aggressive. The New York Times launched premium tier TimesSelect but many saw it simply as a means to keep print circ from shrinking.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, was going the other way — the poster child for online revenue launched a Saturday print edition, with mixed sales results.

But despite the erosion of mass audiences, the underlying principles of journalism and publishing seemed as sturdy as ever. At its most tragic hour, the New Orleans Times-Picayune may have been unable to put out a print newspaper, but it used a frequently-updated blog edition to bring comfort and information to its many scattered readers.

In 2005, the Washington Post also completed the acquisition of Slate, proving that smart online pubs can be successful — and that established print businesses can give new life to them.

And when the Pulitzer Prize Committee announced that it would finally begin accepting online submissions next year, it underscored what many of us already suspected: excellence is excellence, regardless of the medium. In 2006, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it profitable.

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