Newspapers Are At a Crssrds

Times are tough for newspapers. Raw materials, transportation, and skilled labor costs all have risen dramatically. Newspaper managers are searching high and low for new economies to survive in the New Economy. Revenues are sagging, and they’ve had a hard time finding ways to cut enough costs to stay solvent. Two Oregon newspapers recently have announced dramatic changes, but it may not be enough.

Ink and newsprint prices are going up, and there’s nothing a publisher can do about it. Trucking tons of each to and from the presses every day isn’t getting cheaper either.

Newspapers have also reduced the size of the paper to save paper, printing, ink and transportation costs. But less space means fewer words on each page. Publishers may reduce their paper’s width, but must avoid reducing its depth.

Labor is the only expense that can be controlled directly, but only to a point. For a newspaper to maintain credibility with its readers, reporters have to show up at meetings or events.

Offshoring the duties of reporters and editors has been tried recently in Pasadena, California, where writers from India watch from webcams and then summarize city council meetings. But “Pasadena Now” is not the newspaper of record for its community.

Newspaper staffs are shrinking. The Register-Guard has offered incentives to staffers willing to accept early retirement. Many newspapers have been forced to announce lay-offs when the voluntary reductions haven’t met the cost-cutting targets.

Newspapers are running as lean as they can, but revenues continue trending downward. They are declining in three areas.

Subscriptions are down a bit, as younger readers opt for the online version or other Web-based outlets for their news.

Display advertising is also in decline, but only in the main paper. Special publications, some mailed to subscribers and non-subscribers alike, make up some of that shortfall. On-line advertising is growing dramatically, but those numbers don’t make up for the losses elsewhere.

The only losses that approach catastrophe come from classified advertising. Unlike subscriptions and display advertising, fewer classified ads don’t also reduce the newspaper’s cost of doing business. Nobody complains when the classified section is “nothing but ads.” On-line alternatives that target car buyers or real estate or job seekers have each taken a bit of the pie that newspapers once had all to themselves.

Cost-cutting at newspapers is getting desperate.

The Oregonian has announced it will curtail delivery of its daily editions beginning the first of the year. The Oregonian will be available in Lane County for home delivery or at newsstands only on Sundays, prompting Joe Johnson of Powers, Oregon to suggest in a letter to the editor this week that the newspaper may want to rename itself The Portlander.

The Klamath Falls Herald and News announced this week it will reduce its publication schedule and omit Mondays. If you divide the business’ fixed costs across seven days, rare is the newspaper making money with their Monday edition. Or Tuesday’s paper. The daily newspapers in Detroit announced this week that they would soon be reducing home delivery to only three days a week: Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

What more can a newspaper do? I have a suggestion that will save them 20 percent.

Stop printing vowels.

You may think I’m joking, but think about it. The Torah was written in Hebrew without vowels, and that book seems to have survived pretty well. When you start a publishing venture carving letters on stone tablets, you really understand the hard costs of the business.

Omitting a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y will reduce the letters offered in the print publication by over one fifth, while keeping all numerals and punctuation — and words — intact. Keep in mind that many of these vowels being targeted for elimination were silent or so-called “helping” vowels all along.

Vowels may seem essential, but these are challenging days. Newspapers and readers must adapt. You may find you can read the paper more quickly every morning, with a handy new vowelless version.

With this small change in format, Th Rgstr-Grd wll stll b th ppr f rcrd fr Ln Cnty.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) was general manager for the Oxnard (Calif.) Press-Courier and then an editor for the Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News before coming to Eugene as publisher and editor of the Comic News. Two of those three newspapers are no longer in business and the other has since changed owners, so publishers are cautioned to consider that before taking his suggestions seriously. Kahle blogs here and writes for The Register-Guard each Friday.