The Enemy is Us
“The State of Local Media” was addressed by John Bridges, a senior editor with the Austin American-Statesman and I during Texas State University’s Mass Communications week Tuesday, October 20, 2009. Speaking to a packed lecture hall, we agreed, local media is in a state of flux.
I recorded the session moderated by Dr. Susan Weill. So, this will read something like an edited transcript of the first part of the 1 ¼ - hour give and take.
What is the state of the local Austin media? Bridges spoke first:
Because of the Internet and 24/7 cable, the local newspaper is publishing different stories now contrasted with just a few years ago, Bridges said.
“We know we can’t bring you the world like we used to. We don’t need to. Today, on most days you’ll set three or four locally-produced stories on the front page. Not very long ago, there would have been maybe two stories. You can’t go to ESPN to get the same kind of local news that we have. The San Marcos paper can do San Marcos better than we can.”
“You own all but two of the surrounding local community papers. So, you’re also ‘hyper local’,” I interjected.
“Yes, it’s sort of a business strategy. It’s turned out to be fairly profitable as a news organization. There is not a huge overlap. There is not a lot of sharing of stories. They do their thing and we do our thing,” Bridges said.
“What you see now is that a little, bitty paper is doing well because it is really giving you the meat and potatoes news for its area. At the Statesman, we are writing stories of regional issue while the Westlake Picayune is doing stories about construction at an intersection that we would never touch.”
“The media business used to be a gold mine, because you were the only game in town,” said. “It was wonderful. What these small newspapers do—he said that they’re very successful in terms of revenue—is they create separate revenue streams.
“All of the media are trying to find ways of increasing revenue. The American Statesman has an incredible printing business. You’re probably the biggest print house in this part of the state, and they distribute stuff all the way to Colorado,” I continued. “They have a brand new packaging plant—They’re packaging up all of these little inserts and stuff that go into local papers. It’s all automated. People don’t do that anymore; machines do it.” [Only about 20-percent of the employees at the Austin American-Statesman are journalists working in the newsroom.]
“And, what’s happening in television? The same thing,” I continued. “This revenue problem that television stations and media in general has had has been going on—it has actually been building—for decades because of the technological advances, if nothing else. Cable television came along. It started small. Then, it just grew, grew, grew. Then came the Internet came along and became more pervasive all in your lifetime, IN YOUR LIFE TIME! [I was speaking of the current TSU students life times.]
“Let me stress that, IN YOUR LIFE TIME!!! This change is happening at a mercurial rate and some of its results are just as toxic as mercury,” I said.
The available audience is pie being cut into smaller and smaller pieces with digital channels, cable, and the Internet. “Each one of these TV stations is trying to make each one of these pieces as profitable as possible.” Local stations are using their sub channels in an attempt to tap into the growing Hispanic/Spanish speaking audience in Central Texas. They are hoping to bring in revenue streams from all of these.
“We are living in a time of flux right now. We’re in the middle, and there is no telling where this will go,” I concluded. Turning to Bridges I asked, “Can you answer where it’s going to go? I don’t know.”
“I think right now, we’re in fluxed,” Bridges said.
We were asked what are the biggest challenges facing news now.”
“It’s the business side of it. Our staff is getting smaller,” Bridges said.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“It’s because we don’t have as much money coming in,” Bridges replied. “For us, the big part of the revenue problem is classified advertising.” [It] used to be if you were having a garage sale or if you were looking for a certain type of job, that’s where you went [the newspaper]. Now, probably not, because the business has gone elsewhere to Craig’s List and online job sites and all that kind of stuff. “That’s down to a page or two a day. That was the equivalent of printing money for us. The Statesman remains profitable, so they tell us. [The Austin American Statesman is owned by Cox, a privately held company.] It’s making money. It’s just not making as much money as it used to.
There have been staff reductions at the Austin American-Statesman through attrition and buy-outs to save money. “Over all we’ve gone from a newsroom staff of 195 to 152, something like that,” Bridges said. “In the past two years as people go out the door. We say, “So long.”, and then we try to figure out how to do without them, and figure out what we don’t do anymore. To me, that is the biggest threat that if newspapers continue to slide in terms of a business model, then how long can they afford to keep all of around who are out chasing news and doing the news business. That’s the number one threat.”
“One of the threats is that every medium is being asked to do more with less,” I said. “You still have to put out the newspaper. You have a beast that has to be fed. It’s hungry every day, starting at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. You have to feed it at noon maybe and maybe at 4 O’clock, 5 O’clock, 6 O’clock, and 10 O’clock. The beast is hungry, and you have to feed it something, and if there is no news, you must think of something that looks and tastes, and feels like news, because the beast must be fed.
“Media has gotten away from enterprise. Media is doing the easy stuff. There is too much crime reporting. Why is it? Because it’s so easy. Is this really what we need to put out every day? Does it really affect your life? Probably not. There is too much crime, because it is easy. They’re doing more with less.” Stations are adding newscasts without increasing the size of the staff significantly because they want to create a new revenue streams. Without adequate staff, it is questionable whether the medium will have a product that the audience wants,” I said.
“This is an axiom: People (reporters and staff) = Content (Content is what you’re looking for, isn’t it?)=Audience=Money or revenue.”
If you cut your staff, you have fewer people to gather content, you are going to have less content. The audience is going to figure it out, and there is going to be fewer people in the audience; and therefore, you can’t charge as much for your commercials. What is your revenue going to do?” It goes down.
It thrust of the first third of the TSU session on “The State of the Media” was basically “I have seen the enemy, and it is us!”
© Jim McNabb, 2009