Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Hail Caesar: Gannett Papers Announce Changes in Opinion Strategy

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2019 at 9:10 AM

click to enlarge There's no good way to illustrate these stories but posts without images generate less clicks and "the need to establish consistent expectations about content pushes news outlets to cover stories in predictable ways and to use personalities as a way to build brand recognition." So here's a picture of me in front of weird paintings of fish. I'm sorry.
Today's terrible journalism news: Gannett newspapers saw fourth-quarter losses in circulation and revenue. According to Marketwatch the company is reporting a 12 percent dip in sales, with circulation revenue dropping 9 percent and print advertising dropping 24 percent. The one area where Gannett has been growing also took a hit as "digital advertising and market services declined about 3 percent."

I've been anticipating this news since all three of Gannett's major Tennessee newspapers individually announced changes framed as big improvements to their editorial pages.  Those changes, like the disappointing quarterly report, fit a pattern and seem to be part of a downward trend with no bottom in sight. 

Gannett newspapers across the state of Tennessee, including The Commercial Appeal, have run similar editorials letting readers know they are "listening.” They've heard you and are, per you, developing new and improved strategies for kinder, more inclusive opinion journalism.

Redesigns can be a good thing and the print real estate traditionally reserved for unsigned editorials and nationally syndicated columnists, absolutely should be reappraised. At the same time, relinquishing the former has to also be seen as the final gasp of an era when local and regional newspapers had (or believed they had) some weight to throw around — when thick bundles of newsprint stacked as high and wide as you could see stood in evidence. But as the marketplace of ideas flattens into the marketplace, the land and physical assets these once powerful newspapers own and occupy, are seen as possessing more immediate value than either the medium or its message.   

Gannett Tennessee's new editorial plan, as variously/similarly described in its Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis papers, includes weird Aristotelian ideals for letters to the editor which, in accordance with natural law, should not exceed 200 words in the west, 250 words in the center, and 300 words in the east of the state. The columns also suggest we'll be seeing less national political commentary and “more about solutions than takedowns of the people and organizations trying to do things,” whatever that tragically vague construction means. Of course people and their sense of place/community matter very much, as they often do in communications seeking to persuade people who live in places and communities. Obviously, there will be more local stuff! And there will be more you!

Via the CA:

"By tradition, opinion has long been the section where readers found the institutional view of The Commercial Appeal. It is also where you read guest commentaries, local and syndicated columnists, letters to the editor, editorial cartoons and, of course, the daily Bible verse.

Starting this week, we are moving away from that approach to one that showcases more community voices, puts an emphasis on analysis and an expanded newsroom engagement with Memphis through community events we sponsor.

Readers have repeatedly told us that they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor. And we want to deliver more of what you want."

What also has to be understood, whether it's spelled out or not, is that all this "more" is the direct result of newsrooms constantly struggling to produce a viable product with less.

The "different but same" nature of Gannett's editorials makes it hard to take their grass roots too seriously. As a rule, newspapers have always cast a wide net but walked a narrow path, as they've attempted to attract and inform readers while also being an exciting, activated, and (most importantly) safe place for advertisers. Not to mention the fact that, newspapers have frequently listened to consumers and then intentionally adapted away from their needs/demands in a misguided effort to attract lost and non-readers. This was always done with full awareness that it made bundled distribution less attractive to the same loyal, long-suffering consumers that sustained newspapers when changing technology screwed all distribution and revenue models. Naturally, we'll observe more content shifts reflecting the relative value of newspaper properties as measured against their tangible assets or lack thereof.
This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
  • This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
Unbundling content is easily justified on a spreadsheet. Art columns, for example, may be well read, but they aren't given the importance of public affairs reporting (which isn't prime for advertisers), and when it comes to straight clicks, little can compare to food and beverage columns. Restaurants and national food/drink brands buy ads, so if you're a business major working for a holding company that owns a bunch of newspapers, it makes total sense to calculate the small number of readers you'll lose completely by eliminating arts coverage as long as you can effectively sell the perceived public value of hard news while expanding popular dining and related soft/syndicated news. In another example, as page counts dwindle in print space, and digital content is prioritized, sports sections may run trend stories or business/recruiting analysis instead of next day scores and review. Similarly, election results may go digital-only, etc. But as more diverse, professionally created content is stripped away in favor of paid, nonprofessional, or owned off-market content, it becomes evident that the bundle is/was exponentially more useful and valuable than any particular sets of content. And by "the bundle," I don't just mean box scores, election results, stories about street names, horoscopes, and housing, I'm also counting newsprint's famously pejorative applications as fire-starter, birdcage liner, and hand prop for would be demagogues.

To borrow from the Columbia Journalism Review, "Despite all the flaws of the traditional newspaper — and there are many — the bundling of hard news and civic information with soft news, sports, comics, and more is amazingly effective at supporting broad-based political and civic engagement."

"From 2008 to 2009 civic engagement declined more sharply in Denver and Seattle than in other major cities—a result he attributes to the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer during that period, which left them as one-newspaper towns. His conclusions are consistent with a 2013 study in the Journal of Media Economics, which similarly found that after The Cincinnati Post closed in late 2007, electoral competition and voter turnout declined in areas of Kentucky where the Post was the leading paper. It’s hard to prove a direct causal connection between the papers’ closings and reduced engagement, but other research has found that residents of areas where the newspaper market doesn’t match up well with congressional district boundaries were less informed about their representatives, which in turn caused legislators to be less responsive to their constituents’ needs."

So, you're a Gannett newspaper in Tennessee and your "readers have repeatedly told [you] they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor." Have they? What a wonderful coincidence these super-thoughtful consumers are demanding such cost-effective (mostly free) content! Clearly Gannett, you have raised them right.
   
Consumer habits are no big mystery, so it's no insult to observe that allowing the public's interests determine public interest is like letting a toddler determine household nutrition standards. It's also bad business for companies who aren't nihilistically calculating managed blood loss against short-term profit. As an aside, and regardless of whether or not pulp has a future, this last bit touches on one of the reasons why fully digital models for local general daily news delivery, are still a sketchy proposition. Using both the digital-forward CA and Daily Memphian as examples, what's on offer is a basic selection of popular content (food/business/sports) and the kind of hard news everybody used to know about due to the social function of widely circulated newspapers, but which relatively few people may actually read/subscribe for.

As a perceived public good, journalism's power/value has always exceeded the technical reach of public affairs reporting and consumer advocacy. In other words, when newspapers were widely circulated, nobody had to actively consume hard news or advocacy to benefit from it. Going forward, this age-old assumption has to be modified to exclude deep familiarity, and with the understanding that presumed universal benefits for non-readers fade when techno/economic scales tip and enough non-readers can also be described as non-subscribers/consumers. This will be especially so in the absence of strong reciprocity and community engagement. Like newspaper properties whose practical worth is now weighted against tangible assets, once credit is lost, you're discredited.


The clip linked above is from the movie Hail Caesar. In it, you'll see George Clooney, dressed as a Roman soldier for his role in a manufactured religious epic. He's been kidnapped by a gaggle of weirdo communist writers who tell him that a man who understands economics and history can accurately predict the future. Now I don't claim any extraordinary insight into either of these fields, or any gift for precognition. But I did, rather flippantly, predict this change in direction, while ranting about newspaper history and economics, and their relationship to a controversial opinion column published in several of Gannett's Tennessee newspapers. I regret that the political-sounding headline, "MAGA Bro Pens Love Letter to MAGA CAP,"  may have kept some from reading media criticism that anticipates how modern economies and user habits will eventually yield more populist, probably non-professional content.

Welcome to eventually; Hail Caesar. 

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