In yet another piece of evidence that the legacy print media in Virginia isn’t keeping up with the times, three Virginia newspapers — the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, the Roanoke Times, and Richmond Times-Dispatch — are all announcing mass layoffs as they head into the rest of 2018.
From the Free Lance-Star:
Free Lance–Star Publisher Dale Lachniet expressed regret over the loss of “outstanding people who have done fantastic work,” but said the cuts were necessary because many national advertisers are facing disruption from the shift to online shopping. BH Media Chief Executive Officer Terry Kroeger also cited rising newsprint prices caused by new U.S. government tariffs on Canadian paper.
Lachniet said the FLS experienced strong growth in its digital products in the past year, including a more than 150 percent increase in digital-only subscriptions. He noted that fredericksburg.com saw a substantial increase in web and mobile traffic, to more than 41 million page views in 2017.
What Lachniet omits to add is that the digital content is… well… pablum at best, and thinly stretched at worst.
Gone are the days of Paul Akers where content was king and thoughtful commentary was encouraged within the opinion section. Instead, it has devolved into the heavy-handed “Free Slant Star” that remains pilloried by the Fredericksburg region’s more conservative leanings, and in stark contrast to the Mary Washington set that seems huddled (ironically, in Carl Silver’s Central Park rather than in Downtown Fredericksburg) around what remains of a once great newspaper.
From the Richmond Times-Dispatch who courageously describes the layoffs as a “re-positioning” at best:
Developing additional new products and services that can attract new revenue will take time. To keep our newspaper strong in the meantime, we will again raise subscription prices and increase the newsstand price of The Times-Dispatch. In March, single-copy purchasers will pay $2 for a newspaper Monday through Saturday and $3 for the larger Sunday edition.
For our loyal longtime readers, here’s the abrupt change that interrupts what you have come to expect for many years: We are shifting from a predominantly advertising-supported business to an operation that relies more on subscription revenue.
A wise move indeed, as the future of news appears to be within magazines and online content — not newsprint. With legacy media outlets seemingly reluctant to adopt opinion journalism (case in point — the Washington Post’s olive branch to the most extreme conservative viewpoint they are willing to countenance, that being moderate Republican and professional Never Trump acolyte Jennifer Rubin) and refusing to break ranks with a narrative established by the media scrum?
The problem is the model — the legacy media can’t control the narrative anymore, therefore the veneer of objectivity goes right down the gullet of public opinion and doesn’t swallow clean without a chaser. When objectivity is defined as conformity? That’s the problem in a nutshell.
Finally, we have our most disappointing and heartbreaking of announcements — this one from the Roanoke Times:
“The data suggest our industry is changing, not dying,” Kroeger wrote in a letter to employees, explaining various measures the company is undertaking to address those changes.
Among initiatives he cited were adding new expertise in direct-to-consumer marketing, investing in technology to improve online users’ experience and placing new emphasis on consumer revenue.
“Our news content has never been more important than it is right now,” Kroeger wrote. “And we will continue to deliver news to customers the way they choose to receive it.”
Of the three announcements, the Roanoke Times is perhaps the most honest. Points go to the RTD for trying to put the best spin on things, while the Free Lance-Star remains deeply embedded within the Mary Washington bubble.
Yet of the three, the Roanoke Times really does have the best content. Center-left, to be sure — but of all the state newspapers, it is the Roanoke Times that is doing crack reporting, the Roanoke Times where op-eds get filed, the Roanoke Times where conversations are being held.
Other examples abound of where the legacy media is struggling to adapt to digital media. The Virginian Pilot is making strong commitments to digital, though a number (that being, one) of its political reporters simply do not merit the soapbox. The Daily Press still cranks out good content. The Winchester Star merits distinction as well, though their firewall is a bit… impermeable at times. Chris Suarez over at the Charlottesville Daily Progress is one hell of a writer, especially during the town’s recent convulsions.
Then there’s the granddaddy of the legacy media outlets in Virginia — the Washington Post — where the writers there are simply just damn good writers (yes, I have my soft spots for Laura Vozzella’s crafting of a narrative and Jenna Portnoy’s superb writing style, both of which are nothing short of excellent — even if I disagree at times with the content). Alan Suderman with the AP? Best reporter in Virginia. Jeff Schapiro with the RTD? Best op-ed writer in Virginia (even if he lives up to the “Good Copy” moniker of times past). When the RTD editors pronounce on a topic? Virginia listens…
We have good reporters and journalists in Virginia. We might even have good op-ed writers and prognosticators in our digital space (even if the legacy media refuses to countenance the existence of publications such as The Republican Standard, Blue Virginia, The Bull Elephant, and Bearing Drift). What the former does not have are good business systems that enable dissenting viewpoints to reach the wider audience, or the latter’s willingness to write simply to have their voices heard. The legacy media’s contempt for digital media only makes the eventual link between the two delayed… but it’s coming (and one begins to think they know it).
The WaPo, of course, has the deep pockets of Jeff Bezos and an Amazon headquarters about to be plunked down in Arlington… the opportunities for the WaPo to truly innovate are about as endless as Bezos’ ability to experiment. It’s failings? Like most, the spectrum of viewpoints are limited to the bandwidth of the editorial office.
The clock is ticking, of course. Print media, according to the CEO of the Old Grey Lady, The New York Times, has about another 10 years of shelf life.
Here’s the problem. Go look at the Free Lance-Star some 40 years ago, and then look at the newspaper today. Notice a difference? The content is different. The information inside is different. The advertising hasn’t changed (much — other than the classifieds), but the stories were just plain better back then.
Even the layout was better back then. Why? Because the folks who crafted the Free Lance-Star 40 years ago were newspaper men — folks who knew the news, knew their communities, knew the presses they were running on, knew where to find advertising, knew how to post contrasting opinions… in short, this was a public forum when you picked up the paper, you had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the world.
Legacy media lost that with Bob Woodward. Digital media picked up on it, aped their prejudices, and now “fake news” is everywhere we find disagreement in substance.
Print media isn’t dead, but riding on the reputation of American journalism carefully built by figures such as William Shirer, Virginius Dabney, and others without building upon it?
Eventually people figure it out. That’s why the legacy media is dying.