Down Time In Provincial Print

Caption: The art deco Daily Telegraph building symbolised the steady, secure nature of provincial newspapers in the 1980s.

An old journalist colleague of mine, Mike Johansson and has a unique take of the changes facing print media. He started out as a cadet reporter at the now defunct Napier Daily Telegraph in what is now remembered as a strong and stable era for New Zealand print journalism.  Provincial newspapers were buoyed by classified advertising and had enough resources to sustain a rounds system that covered local news with some detailed understanding. He also worked as a sub-editor at The Press, in Christchurch, in what was, in retrospect, a golden era.

Johansson earned a Rotary scholarship to the prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University in Upstate New York and after that he made a career nearby at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester owned by the giant Gannett Corporation.

“In 1986 when I landed in Syracuse, readership was in very slow decline,” he says.

“There was a massive expansion of cable TV in the US in the 1990’s further eroding consumers’ perceived available time and the slow-at-first growth of the Internet. It started a slow and steady downsizing of the news product which some say led to an matching decline in readership.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 opened the eyes of many in print journalism to the power of the news website. But the issue for all news websites has been that that the revenue from advertising would never be quite enough.

Mike Johansson left New Zealand in the 1980s to work on print journalism the US
Mike Johansson left New Zealand in the 1980s.

“In the 2000s newspapers saw the best way of hanging on to past margins was trimming the print web size. Advertising rates kept rising annually and readership continued its steady decline. Then along came the 2008 Recession and a rapid decline in advertising revenues. In August 2008 Gannett let go 1,500 individual No. 2s … including me…

“In the late 2000s social media was rapidly gaining followings and people were starting to get their news from Twitter and Facebook,” he said.

Johansson says that at this point that newspapers had the perfect opportunity to be connectors – helping advertisers get their messages to customers in multiple ways including print, the web and social media. But most companies seemed to shun anything that they did not completely control. It was a fatal mistake in my opinion.

“Now 2017 newspapers are struggling to remain relevant. Most readership for newspapers is slowly aging out and finding a newspaper reader under 30 in the U.S. is an extremely rare thing.” Johansson said.

Nowadays, he is involved in social media strategy as an academic at Rochester, and owns a website about getting the best out of social mEDIA called Fixitology. He says the way forward for news organizations is building communities of interest where they are the hub of a group of people sharing information and acting as community managers and guiding the content, rather than necessarily providing it.

“But most newspapers want too much control and simply being at the center of the wheel, selling advertising and accepting lower profit margins does not hold much appeal for news organisations. As a result the only newspapers that are likely to sustain an audience here are the major metropolitans and those hyper-targeted town and suburban papers or those with an extreme niche audience,” Johansson said.


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