I’ve been doing my best to remain calm, but I have to confess that it isn’t working as well as it usually does. I’m speaking, of course, about the tsunami that is currently wreaking havoc on the traditional media business, an industry in which I happen to have spent virtually my entire working life. The earthquake that created this particular tsunami occurred ages ago, and those who were paying attention have long since headed inland to safety, but the shock waves are now starting to hit with real force, accelerated by the economic uncertainty all around us.
Bad news has been trickling in for months, or even years — newspapers cutting back staff, closing editions, companies on the ropes financially. But it’s been a thousand small cuts, mostly at smaller publications, and so it hasn’t really had as much impact as it might otherwise. It seems to be accelerating though, and now it’s not just small papers or magazines but ones that everybody has heard of. It hit home recently while reading through a summary of industry news that I get daily from the folks at I Want Media. Here’s a sampling of recent headlines:
— “Newark Star-Ledger cuts 40% of staff”
— “TimeWarner to cut 600 jobs in magazines”
— “Gannett to cut 3,000 newspaper jobs”
— “Orange County Register to cut 110 jobs”
— “LA Times cuts 10 per cent of staff”
— “Thomson Reuters eyes massive layoffs”
— “Washington Post profit falls 86 per cent”
— “New York Times debt cut to junk”
In Canada, there have been layoffs at the Toronto Star, and the National Post just announced that it will no longer publish a weekday edition in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Several magazines have also stopped publishing, including Masthead magazine, which covers the magazine industry. Compared to what’s been going on in the U.S., Canada seems to have remained relatively unscathed, and as far as I can tell the atmosphere at the Globe (where I work) is cautiously optimistic. But the unrelenting cascade of bad news does tend to make the palms a little sweaty regardless.
For what it’s worth, I think journalism itself — broadly defined — has never been stronger. To see things like the Huffington Post and Politico.com spring up from virtually nothing and become media powerhouses in their own right is a tremendous thing, and I have no doubt that the Christian Science Monitor could do the same without much trouble, now that has cut itself free from newsprint and publishing and trucks and all of that. But it’s still difficult to watch the kind of wrenching change we’re seeing this entire industry go through. Evolution can often be ugly.
My friend and former colleague Richard Siklos (we were both summer interns at the London Free Press about 20 years ago) seems somewhat more sanguine about the fate of the newspaper business. And don’t get me wrong — I think the newspaper business is going to be around for a while; I just think it’s going to employ fewer people, and while it may involve roughly the same amount of news, it’s going to involve a lot less paper. On a related front, Pat Thornton of Journalism Iconoclast did an interview with John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, about the paper’s decision to go Web-only and what that means.