Eric Davis: Newspapers confront big changes

The Burlington Free Press announced last week that it was laying off 13 employees, including five reporters, editors and photographers in the newsroom. Over the past decade, the Free Press’ weekday circulation has dropped by nearly half, from 50,000 to 26,000. Since the Free Press switched to a tabloid format and raised its subscription rates in June 2012, it has lost more than 10 percent of its weekday sales.

Gannett, the Free Press’ corporate owner, recently laid off at least 165 staffers at newspapers around the country, at the same time it announced that second-quarter advertising sales fell by 5 percent. Readers and advertisers are demonstrating a lack of confidence in the Gannett newspaper model of limited content sold at high prices. As a publicly traded company, Gannett is under pressure to cut costs and deliver short-term results to shareholders. However, downsizing newsrooms is not going to make Gannett newspapers more appealing to readers. The Free Press and other Gannett papers may be in a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover.

Meanwhile, The New York Times announced last week that it agreed to sell the Boston Globe to John W. Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, for $70 million. The Times bought the Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993. The Globe’s print circulation has dropped by almost 50 percent since 1993, although it does have nearly 40,000 digital subscribers who pay to access the full content of the paper on the Web, tablets and smartphones.

Henry, who made billions as a commodity trader, is a man with very deep pockets. He is buying theGlobe for less than 20 percent of what he committed to pay former Red Sox players Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Henry has said he recognizes the importance of a strong Boston Globe to Massachusetts and New England, and that he will put resources into the Globe’s newsgathering operation. Henry also pledged that he would not interfere with the Globe’s Red Sox coverage, which will continue to be overseen by the sports editor and the managing editor. As a privately owned newspaper, the Globe will not be under the pressure of public corporations such as Gannett to deliver quarterly gains to shareholders.

Another privately held paper that is changing the model of delivering the news is the British newspaper The Guardian, which is making major investments in expanding its online presence in the United States, Australia and among English-speaking readers worldwide. Last week, The Guardian launched a new international Web site, with American and Australian, as well as British, editions. The Guardian has bureaus in New York and Washington, with 29 editorial staff in those cities — more journalists covering business and politics than at many U.S.-based newspapers.

Since it is an online-only newspaper outside of Britain, the Guardian can devote a higher proportion of its resources to newsgathering, because it does not need to incur printing and distribution costs for its international editions. The Guardian’s American readership has steadily increased in recent years, to the point where nearly one-third of its worldwide online readers are based in the U.S. Indeed, earlier this summer, when The Guardian was breaking stories about NSA surveillance, its digital sites had more readers from the United States than from Britain.

Finally, on Monday Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, purchased The Washington Post’s print media businesses for $250 million. Like the Globe and The Guardian, the Post will become a privately owned newspaper. This change in ownership structure will likely result in more resources becoming available to the Post’s newsroom.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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