Epitaph: Here lies 30 percent profit

(Last Updated On: December 2, 2008)

Friday I visited with reporters, editors and co-workers from the daily newspaper where I photographed for ten years.  We met at a local bar next door to the newspaper building now about to close.

I’ve been out of the newspaper business since the company closed its photography department eighteen months earlier.  The publisher called me by phone while I was in the middle of one of my first podcasts for Prosperousartists.com. I had been a newspaper photographer for about twenty years.

I felt the closing of the department was heartless.  Not because of my loss. But due to the fact we were about to celebrate, five months later, the chief photographer’s retirement. He would have served the community and newspaper as a photographer for 50 years.  Sadly, month’s later, editors, reports, photographers, co-workers, friends, family and members of the community gathered in a standing-room-only funeral home to pay final respects.

When our chief photographer started in the newspaper business, the company was owned by a prominent local family.   The daily newspaper was a centerpiece of the community; it was how community information was distributed.

Eventually the newspaper was sold. It was no longer a point of civic pride for its owners or a cohesive center point of happenings, involvement and community. It was now an investment.

Along with the other media outlets bought and sold through the years a thirty percent profit was a common mandate.  As other sources for information became more popular the circulation began to decline and cuts were made.

The more cuts and consolidations made by the owners,  the more the circulation dropped. New owners would offer false hope for their investments, but ultimately shareholders demanded the mandated profits. Reinvestment, other than the occasional redesign, was rare.

Local columns, features and news would be scaled back and replaced with homogenized, syndicated columns, features and entertainment.  Circulation continued to drop.

Eventually, the printing press was dismantled and the printing of the newspaper was outsourced to another property.  Circulation continued to decrease. The newspaper community outreach, involvement and advertising budgets were cut. The sense of loyalty to the local newspaper continued to decrease, but the thirty plus profit remained intact.

Over time the pressure of new media sources started taking a heavy toll on the investment profits of the all newspapers papers within the chain.  The cuts continued.

As the Internet matured, the company experimented with new revenue sources on the Internet.  The same Internet publishers, managers and sales associates declared to advertisers to be of little value over the previous years. Needless to say, Internet banner ads have been a hard sell.  Attempts to redesign and upgrade have also been failures.

After hearing that the company spent time and effort to relaunch their online properties I checked in and found myself extremely disappointed. Actually the words WTF came from my mouth.  The design reminded me of cutting edge web design of the late 1990s.  The content was mostly generic information easily found on the front page of many national media web sites.  What little original local content found on the site was buried two screen pages below the headlines.  Ultimately, it was slapped together with not much thought.

As I sat in the bar with my old co-workers sharing memories and our thoughts on the future of media it became very clear why traditional media, newspapers of my chef photographers era, have taken such a hard and fast fall.

Today, the new and social media conversation is about building communities.  “It’s about them” and offering unique and valuable content.

Unfortunately, in the name of profit the managers of the traditional media investments dismantled their communities.  They replaced local voices with names far-removed from the community.  They cut resources rather than invest in attracting loyal readers and building the brand.  Often the attitude was “just slap something between the ads.”

Now it is too late to rebuild.  The community has moved on to other sources. Today the name of the newspaper has little value.  Even when I worked at the newspaper many of my neighbors had no idea it existed.

We are in the last days of newspapers as we know them.  But, we can take the industry example as confirmation of what not to do.

During my last minutes in the old offices I observed the desks with boxes piled high. I made note of the familiar smell of newsprint heavy in the air.  A friend pointed to a photography press award with my name on it that once hung in the hallway — and now laid half buried on a desk — suggesting I should take it home.

Another old friend from the sales department handed me a Monopoly-sized token of a 4×5 press camera made of brass.  She had found it in the old photography department and had kept it on her desk.  It was a souvenir from my chief photographer’s desk. I thanked her as memories of its exact location formed in my mind.

The little brass camera now sits on my desk. It will serve as a reminder of an industry I love, the people I have worked with and that change is constant.


Thank you to Shirley for the headline.

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