Don Cohen: News in transition, including in the Vail Valley
Vail, CO, Colorado
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re more than a headline skimmer. The problem is there aren’t as many of you as there once was.
Today’s near historic economic slump has, seemingly overnight, exposed the weaknesses and inefficiencies of business models throughout the economy. News journalism, with print in particular, has been brutally impacted. The emperor has no clothes.
In Detroit there are plans for home delivery to be reduced to three days a week. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News is up for sale and, absent any willing buyers, will see its 150-year existence snuffed out like a cigarette butt twisted into the pavement.
The armor of economic invincibility that has shielded our community has become as porous as gauze with the slowdown in our economy. In 2008 we saw the demise of The Vail Trail, which, for years, was in slow decline. Even after being purchased and re-invested in by The Vail Daily’s parent company, Colorado Mountain News Media, The Trail couldn’t achieve profitability and sadly folded.
The upstart Vail Mountaineer, owned by The Vail Daily’s original founder, Jim Pavelich, emerged on the scene in mid-year with an eye on offering the Daily true competition for eyeballs and advertising. Pavelich is a savvy and successful publisher, but in today’s shell-shocked world of newspapering it’s not a question of how much money you’re hoping to make, but how much you’re willing to lose.
It’s unusual that our local papers are distributed for free. That model has worked here because advertising revenue was so robust and there is much larger readership (visitors) beyond our local population. The problem is that, with ad revenues deeply down, switching to a paid subscription model (which isn’t much of a source of revenue when you consider the cost of newsprint, printing and distribution) would only decrease circulation. Lower circulation equals lower revenue from advertising.
The mainstay of ad revenues for almost all of our community’s media is real estate, classified and retail/service. Of the three, real estate and classified have declined sharply and, absent a quick upturn, will probably shrink further before flattening out.
I suspect that this tough economy will cause many small businesses to actually pay attention to how many customers their advertising is bringing them and look a lot more critically at calibrating their ad costs with sales activity. Don’t be surprised if you hear more retailers asking you, “how did you hear about us.” Outside of running sales or coupon promotions, it’s the best way for them to gauge their advertising’s effectiveness.
So what does this mean in the short term? At some point, like many other major metro areas, we’ll be a one-paper community. I’m concerned that we’ll see less local coverage due to smaller news staffs and more wire service and syndicated news and feature fillers, although Vail Daily Editor Don Rogers says that’s not so with his paper, for which he touts 90 percent readership and growth in local coverage over the years rather than the other way. Still I worry that non-critical news that happens on Monday may not show up in print until Wednesday — or longer.
And depending on the shakeout of the Denver Newspaper Agency (merged business operations of the Rocky and Post), you may forego the luxury of home delivery, not only of the Denver papers, but The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
If you’re a Gen-Xer or Millennial, losing home delivery is probably a non-event. My son’s a TV news producer in a top-50 market and, at age 25, relies on his iPhone and the web for keeping an eye on news. If he wasn’t in the news business I don’t think he’d even subscribe to the local paper and Wall Street Journal print editions. It’s also worth noting that where he works, the NBC station in Albuquerque, just laid off 10 employees including a few from the newsroom.
And the longer term? Well, everyone in the news business will be running to the Web, but even those who have staked out their beachfront property may see the sand erode underneath them. It won’t happen overnight, but there will need to be a conjunction of interlocking forces to create a new news paradigm. We’ve seen this occur in less than 10 years in retailing.
We now have bricks and mortar companies (Target, Costco, Best Buy, et. al) with significant Web stores. We also have pure 100 percent e-tailers like Amazon and Buy.com.
This year, in the face of an economic Christmas collapse, Amazon reported its best sales season. What made that happen? High-speed Internet, electronic payment systems (i.e. credit and debit cards) and national home delivery (UPS, FedEx and USPS). Three highly evolved systems: communication, payment and delivery now make a completely new method of commerce available.
It’s going to be the same for news media (notice I didn’t use the word paper) in the future and here’s the transformative technologies that they’ll either learn to harness or perish:
Higher wireless bandwidth. This will go beyond the current 3G and wi-fi that we have in many parts of the county. Wi-max is a technology that’s being touted which could bring cable-modem speed to handheld devices.
E-ink and flexible display technology. Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s reader and iPhones are portable reading devices, but there’s a lot more to come. I’ve seen technology demos of flexible screens that unroll like windowshades. Imagine a device, not much larger than a fat pen where you roll out a flexible screen to read.
The third technology is micropayments. Think of this like an electric meter where you pay for what you consume. It’s a monumental accounting management task, but the cell phone companies already do this in tracking your minutes. Over the decades we’ve gotten used to paying for TV programming through cable and satellite. That’s probably the future for how we’ll pay for information too. And as long as the news content is compelling, we’ll pay (think HBO and Wall Street Journal on-line).
Change is coming for both newspapers and readers alike. I know I’ll miss spending time with the newspaper spread open on the kitchen counter in the morning. However, even now, I’m finding that more and more, I’m careful not to spill my coffee on the keys of my laptop while I’m headline surfing.
Don Cohen is the executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County.
Editor’s note: There is a lot of interest and concern about the greater newspaper industry, as there has been at other critical junctures in our history, particularly during recessions. Community papers, such as the Vail Daily, struggle like other businesses in the downturns but do not generally share in some of the trends that affect our metropolitan and larger brethren. Between our print and online readership, the Vail Daily has never been more widely read or useful to readers and advertisers alike. We’re fortunate that way.