Two different members of my old Rotary Club invited me to come back as their guests today, because Cindi Scoppe was the speaker.
So I went. And she did great.
She addressed the questions people like us hear the most from laypeople. I forget how she stated them (What? You think I should take notes?), but they’re the questions like, What’s happening to my newspaper? Will it be here in the future? What does this mean for democracy? And so forth.
Originally when she agreed to speak on this date, she was unemployed after being laid off by The State. But before today rolled ’round, she had started with the Charleston paper. So one thing she did today was explain why Charleston is in hiring mode — not only that, but expanding its staff — when The State has now thrown its entire editorial department overboard.
It’s a simple answer, which she stated simply: The Post and Courier belongs to a family-owned company that is highly diversified and isn’t dependent on newspaper income to keep going. And The State belongs to a publicly-traded corporation that has to produce for shareholders.
Oh, and there’s one other critical element: The owners of the Charleston paper have resolved to use their advantageous position to produce good journalism as a public service to South Carolina. She said one of the last things she did in the interview process for the job was meet with Pierre Manigault, the member of the family who currently runs the business. And she thought then that whether she got the job or not, she felt blessed to have met someone with that intention, and the means of carrying it out. Because there aren’t many people possessing those two characteristics these days.
By the way, a digression… I noted above that The State “has now thrown its entire editorial department overboard.” That brings me to a form of the question I’ve heard uncounted times over the past decade…
People have asked me over and over, after saying how much they miss me from the paper, and how the paper is shrinking away to nothing, the following version of question Cindi was answering: “Do you think The State will still exist in five years?”
Until recently, I’ve answered that this way: Do you think the paper you knew five years ago still exists today? Which is a pedantic way of saying hey, things have already changed radically, so decide for yourself at which point you think the thing you think of as “the newspaper” ceases to be what it has meant to you.
But we’ve crossed a threshold now. As of the day Cindi was let go, The State ceased to be the paper it had been, with ups and downs, ever since the Gonzales brothers started it, intending it to be a paper with statewide impact that stood for something. (At the time, that meant standing against Tillmanism — a cause for which N.G. Gonzales gave his life.)
Newspapers have always mattered to me, and to the country — whether the country appreciates them or not. But when I say “newspaper,” I don’t necessarily mean a thing that is printed on sheets made of dead trees. In fact, as early as about 1980 — at the time when we made the transition from typewriters to mainframe — I fantasized about a day when I could just hit a button and have the copy go instantly to the reader in electronic form, as easily as I sent it over to the copy desk. No more tedious 19th-century manufacturing and delivery process taking hours between me and the reader.
And now that’s not only possible, it happens many times every day. But in far too many communities, the newspaper — meant the way I mean it, as an identifiable entity that plays a significant role in a community (no matter how its delivered) — is a thing of the past.
A newspaper, as I mean it, is a thing with a mind, a soul, a voice, an identity, a consciousness. It has things to say, and says them. It provides a forum for discussing public issues in a civil and productive manner.
And once a newspaper ceases to have an editorial voice, it’s not a newspaper, as I think of the concept.
You may have noticed that since Cindi has been gone, some days The State publishes an “opinion page” and some days it doesn’t. But frankly, does it matter? Because when it does, there are no editorials — just syndicated copy you can read elsewhere, and some letters. There’s nothing where the paper says, “Here’s what we think,” and invites you to say what you think back.
I say this not to run down the hard work that the good folks who still work at The State do, from the young reporters who now cover state politics (with whom I interacted a lot during the campaign) to the few remaining veterans like John Monk (who introduced Cindi today), Sammy Fretwell and Jeff Wilkinson. They’re working harder than ever, and producing information of value, and may they long continue to do so.
And I’m perfectly aware that the world is full of people — including a lot of journalists — who saw no value in the editorial page, who interacted with it no more deeply than to say, “Did you see what those idiots said today?” If that.
But at least the idiots said something. They didn’t just regurgitate what happened. They thought about it to the best of their feeble ability to think, and shared what they thought, and stood behind it. And that means a lot to me. I decided long ago, even before I left the news division to work on the editorial page back in 1994, that I preferred learning things from sources that had something to say about the subject at hand. It didn’t matter so much what they said about it — I might think their editorial point was totally off the mark — but they engaged the news on a different level, a deeper level, and they invited my lazy brain to do the same. That was more valuable to me than “straight” reporting, which by its nature engages the news on a more superficial level.
Also, you should know, in The State’s defense, that when it abandoned its editorial role last fall, it just joined the trend. When The Post and Courier contacted me to arrange James Smith’s endorsement interview with their editorial board, I thought I might as well start reaching out to other papers and arranging such meetings with them, too. Work, work, work. But as I did so, I had a creeping feeling there wouldn’t be any more such meetings. And I was right. I called The Greenville News. They told me they not only didn’t do endorsements any more, they didn’t do other editorials, either. Ditto with the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. I didn’t contact any smaller papers, figuring if they were exceptions to the rule, they’d reach out to me. I had plenty of other work to do, and it was — to someone like me, being who I am and valuing what I value — a singularly depressing exercise.
End of digression.
Anyway, Cindi did a great job, and represented the profession — the much diminished profession — in a way that did credit to us all. Even if very few of us are still around and employed, I’m glad she’s one of the few. But y’all probably already knew that…
So one day not so far in the future Evening Post Industries will acquire the remains of The State and pair it with the the Free Times to create The Free State paper? Or maybe The State Courier?
I kid – but SC deserves to have a paper of record articulating thoughtful, constructive and forward-looking editorials that move the civic conversation forward. I congratulate the Post & Courier on seizing that mantle (I hope).
That’s what they’re trying to do. The new positions they’re creating are here, in Columbia. They’re trying to become what the Gonzales brothers intended The State to be…
The only “trick” here is to convert the physical newspaper holdouts in the Cola metro area from The State to the Post & Courier. That’s a tough one, but easier than converting them from paper to digital.
McClatchy is being kept alive by the hedge funds that hold its debt – and conversely hold swap positions to benefit if the company goes bust. They make a tidy return on their expensive debt, and have the company handcuffed into only doing financings that either benefit the hedge funds now, or will benefit them if the company fails. McClatchy is the definition of a dead man walking. BTW – Chatham Asset Mgmt is the largest of these hedge fund holders – the same firm that has been financing David Pecker’s AMI.
So McClatchy will be a viable business until suddenly it is not. The tipping point will not be whether the newspaper business finds any viable path forward, but when more potential returns can be made from closing the company than from sucking it dry year by year.
Thanks for explaining that, Mark. Unless the stock price trend suddenly changes, it looks like they have a year or less. Losing more than half its value in four months while the market as a whole is at new highs is not a good sign.
Hah! You think THAT’S something?
When McClatchy bought KR, I had some money (about $1,300) in an Etrade account that I needed to do something with, so I converted it to stock in my new company. Seemed the simplest thing to do.
It lost 99 percent of its value more or less overnight, going from about $39 to about 39 cents…
It went up after that. In fact, I remember noticing a little while later than it had risen to about $3.90. If only I’d invested at 39 cents…
Right this minute, I see it’s at 3.43…
I read The State on the free app- or the parts that are free. About 30% of it seems to be news from the Charlotte Observer.
Concern about the death of newspapers and good journalism has been around a lot longer than most realize. It’s the focus, with the local paper’s role in uncovering local corruption, of one of Humphrey Bogart’s (undeservedly) lesser known films — Deadline U.S.A.
The film appeared in 1952.
A nice copy of the film is available on YouTube:
That was an awesome movie. Especially the ending….
“That’s the press, baby, the press. And there’s nothing you can do about it… nothing!”
As long as the newspaper industry continues to focus on creating a hardcopy product that must be delivered to the doorstep of its customers every single day, it will continue to flounder and eventually fail.
We don’t need newspapers. We need news. There is so far too much cost sunk into the production and distribution of the newspapers. There’s a reason milkmen went away decades ago. There’s a reason Blockbuster went out of business. People want news that is current, curated, and comprehensive. They don’t want to wait until it shows up tomorrow and is limited to what fits on X number of newsprint.
The State COULD be a vibrant news organization if it closed its printing and distribution functions and focused solely on the website and video content.. with maybe a weekly Sunday only print edition similar to the Free Times.
Doug, we keep having this conversation, and you don’t hear me.
You’re not saying anything that’s news to anyone in the news biz. We’ve longed to be free of the cost and inconvenience of producing a print product for at LEAST a couple of decades (and in my case, as I mentioned above, for almost 40 years). But there are obstacles.
One of them is that people — older people mostly, but loads of them — still demand a print product. And as long as they do, someone will provide one. If the newspaper stops doing it, some low-cost provider will come in and put out some worthless rag just to get the ad revenue — and historically (I can’t swear this is the case still, but it definitely was when I was still at the paper) there’s a much higher profit margin on print ads than online.
That doesn’t stop newspaper people for wishing to be free of it. One of the things Cindi did in her talk was ask how many Rotarians still read the print edition of their paper. This being Rotary, quite a few hands went up (I didn’t look around and count them). Cindi had one thing to ask those people: “Please stop.”
If you’re in the biz, you desperately want those people to convert to your online product, for a number of reasons. (One of the biggest being that online readership is measurable, and journalists live and die by those measurements.)
One of the ways they’re encouraging that is by treating the print product as an afterthought. This probably isn’t obvious to anyone who didn’t used to do this for a living, but basically no thought goes into the product. It used to be that front page play was something senior editors got together a couple of times during the afternoon and evening to agonize over and argue about. Is it worth the front? If so, is it worth above the fold? What size headline? With or without art?
Now, I should say that The State didn’t worry over those details quite as obsessively as the Wichita paper did when I was the news editor out there. But still, thought went into it.
Now, it is my understanding that there is a very junior editor who puts the whole paper together alone. They give her the copy from online, and say here, make a newspaper out of it.
And it shows. Every day. It’s fairly obvious that management doesn’t much care whether you read it or not….
What percentage of The State’s operating costs go toward physical newspaper creation, sales, and distribution? How many journalists could be paid for what it costs just for the actual paper and ink? 5? 10? 50?
The choice has always been a long, slow, death or making a bold move.
A HUGE percentage. Which is one of the compelling reasons papers would like to be free of it. It’s a millstone around their necks….
Compare newspapers to the book publishing industry. Yes, digital books killed the brick and mortar bookstores but are people reading any less? The price of digital copies of books has crept up to what hardcovers used to cost… and people still buy them.
Industries are disrupted all the time. Rather than wait on The State to shrivel up and die, someone with a chunk of cash should raid their best people and set up shop on Main St. in Columbia. With Amazon Cloud Services, you don’t need to buy any servers… you could have a website up and running in days. Then it comes down to delivering content people will be willing to pay for.
By the way, I got pulled into the Q&A after Cindi’s speech.
Rusty DePass rose to ask her a question: If a group of local people wanted to buy The State and run it themselves, what would it cost?
Cindi told him that was something I had thought about more than she had.
I told him that was a tough question. A little over 30 years ago, The State (and its properties) sold for $300 million. Six years ago, Jeff Bezos paid less than that for The Washington Post.
Today, I’d be surprised if The State was worth a tenth of what it went for in 1986,
But it’s squishy. It’s about what a buyer is willing to pay, and the seller willing to accept. I suspect that if someone could come up with an “objective” value, McClatchy might not sell at that price.
I tried passing the question to Andy Shain, former business editor and now head of Charleston’s reporting team here in Columbia — he was sitting at my table — but he passed on the opportunity.
Cindi had thrown it to me because buying the paper is something I used to fantasize about. I even wrote a column about it in 2006. That column’s kind of laughable now, because I supposed that the 1986 price would have increased by then, so I said I needed half a billion — not only to buy it, but to invest in improving the paper.
At that time, I could still honestly say, “this paper makes a lot of money.” Because it still did — not as much as it had, but still a lot. But about four months later, the bottom fell out of the retail advertising business nationally — the summer of 2006 was catastrophic — and things just got worse and worse after that.
It’s been awhile now since I’ve fantasized about buying it….
This is supposedly verified circulation data from SCPA:
2016 2010 2009
The State 43,675 96,759 112,051
(Charleston) Post and Courier 62,081 96,005 99,829
I would assume The State is down even further and P&C less so.
If I guessed revenue (papers and ads) was around $30 million a year, would I be way off? Usually the price of a company would be based on some multiple of revenue or profit, right? But in this case, revenue and profit (if any) is declining.. and you have a lot of assets and a huge building in an undesirable area to take over. Are the top reporters under contract or are they free to leave?
I think $30 million would have been right a few years ago. Probably not now.
Reporters are free to leave, but to go where? There are no better prospects.
If you’re planning on starting an online-only paper and hiring them away, good luck. I’m guessing you’d need to have enough spare cash up front to be able to pay them for several years. You don’t just magically have a full-fledged revenue stream, competing with an entity that’s been building relationships with advertisers for well over a century…
What you’re talking about is a great hobby for a Jeff Bezos, but not a promising bet for a start-up. I would only attempt it if I had deep pockets and just didn’t need the money…
McClatchey Financials are pretty brutal… Stock has drifted down from about $9 to $3.35 over the past year. Market cap for the entire company is only $25 million! 20% of their assets are tied up in property, plant, equipment (which is probably way overstated).
Did anyone ask Cindi why there was no POTUS endorsement in 2016?
Y’all, while we’re on this subject, Bob Amundson shares a link to a piece headlined “When No News Isn’t Good News: What the Decline of Newspapers Means for Government.” The subhed says, “About one in five Americans now lack regular access to local media coverage. Studies show this is bad for politics, municipal debt — and even the environment.”
Maybe I should also share a link to the piece I wrote for the Brookings Institution several years back. It addresses the newspaper crisis in general, but also touches upon The State and the Post and Courier specifically…
I thank Bob for sharing that, although I’m going to gripe about a pet peeve… The excerpt I quote above includes the phrase “Around the country…”
Which is wrong. It’s ACROSS the country, if you mean to be inclusive of the whole country.
AROUND suggests that you’re speaking of Canada, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Mexico and the Gulf.
Or maybe you’re talking about the coastal states and those bordering Canada and Mexico, leaving out the flyover country in the middle.
By contrast, “across” suggests an image of an inclusive sweep of the whole country, from coast to coast.
Having gotten that off my chest, I feel better…
See now, THIS is correct, in Canada as well as in this country: ACROSS the country, but AROUND the world: