pardon commutation of Scooter Libby's 30 month prison sentence dominating the news this morning, the San Jose Mercury News published an article announcing 31 lay offs from their newsroom. This news, along with 15 recent volunteer resignations brings The Mercury's fleet of reporters down to 200 which according to the article is about half of what it was in 2000. Of course, this news shouldn't come as too much of a surprise as newspapers across the country have been feeling the heat for some time and many have resorted to lay offs in an effort to balance their declining budgets.
So why is it that print newspapers are faltering in recent years? Is it because of the rise of online journalists and bloggers or is it because American's have grown hypersensitive about paper waste and have decided it is no longer responsible to read a daily newspaper? Has Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth had that much of an impact? Somehow I doubt it.
Other people point to Craigslist and the death of the classified dollars as the driving impetus for the print media's commercial failure, but I'm disinclined to place blame solely on any of these issues. The fact of the matter is that newspapers have never been particularly profitable; while they have managed to be financially sustainable, they are simply a bad investment for public corporations and unlike wealthy patrons stock-holders are unlikely to be happy about barely breaking even. Online media has certainly had an effect on the newspaper industry and their inability to monetize online advertising has clearly contributed to their declining revenues, but I suspect that their failures can be traced back to the industry's sloth-like ability to adapt to a modern information society.
So what can the newspaper business do to reconcile the situation? There's a number of suggestions I've heard put forward over the past few months, but my favorite approach is to actually sell the newspapers to the employees. Nobody knows the critical role of newspapers better than the people who work at them. Unlike investors, whose only real concern is the bottom line, those working in the industry realize that they are in the business of providing a public service. When provided with the means to control their industry and to also profit from their success, I imagine the newspaper industry will find a new renaissance and an assortment of creative ways to strengthen the profitability of their papers while still maintaining the strong principles that prompted them to join the profession in the first place.
Until that happens, we will continue to see newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News resort to lay offs in what could be seen as a hopeless effort to survive these financial pitfalls plaguing the industry. Things will likely not get better either. Anyone who thinks that a newspaper can provide a comparable product with half the number of employees needs to have their head examined, and anyone who thinks that readership wont suffer is in need of the rude awakening they've got coming. I hope Mercury News is able to weather this storm; I have a few friends and acquaintances that work there, but I am quite confident that throwing men overboard will not keep this ship from sinking.