Bad News


I keep having this dream in which the guy who delivers our newspapers swings by early in the morning and tosses an Apple 17-inch MacBook Pro onto the driveway. Its aluminum case is scratched as it slides across the pavement, but the laptop holds together because it is secured with a rubber band.

This of course is fantasy – a nightmare, actually – because I happily subscribe to four daily newspapers at home and receive three more at my office. What I've been reading a lot lately is that newspapers won't be around much longer. They are supposedly doomed due to a perfect storm of bad economy, lost advertising and shifting consumer preferences that favor digital distribution via the Internet.

I'll tell you what I think. I think that geniuses at Google or Apple or some other giant digital think tank secretly created a virus that infects computers at daily newspapers and causes management to self-destruct. What else could possibly explain the behavior of owners who have done just about everything to speed the demise of printed newspapers, short of home-delivering laptops?

The craziness actually goes back two decades when most newspapers were healthy and many were hugely profitable, with margins often topping 30 percent. It was right around then, as The New York Times was paying over a billion dollars for The Boston Globe, that the virus apparently struck, because one publisher after another decided that selling papers was too easy. A tougher trick would be to continue charging for printed copies while at the same time giving away all the content for free on the Internet.

This approach is common in successful businesses. Most supermarkets, for example, have checkout aisles where you pay for each item, and other aisles where all of your groceries are free. At gas stations I always snicker at motorists who insist on using the pay pump, since I always use the free pump.

After a while, newspapers began losing customers as they inexplicably "drifted" to the Internet. Publishers apparently welcomed this trend, because they pronounced it the "Model" for the newspaper industry.

A few publishers rebelled by attempting to charge Internet users a fee, but found that most loyal customers preferred to stick with the printed newspaper.

This is when newspaper owners Jumped the Shark. They decided, en masse, that printed newspapers should be sold for money, while the entire contents should always be free on Web sites. However (and this is the most confounding part) electronic "e-editions," that look sort of like newspapers but are transmitted over the Internet, should cost money - in fact, about as much as if they were printed on paper and delivered right to your driveway.

The San Jose Mercury News is fairly typical. It charges $4.50 per week for home delivery. It charges $0 to read every word at However, it also sells an e-Edition on the Web site for $4.25 per week. Whoever invented this pricing structure should have a monument erected in his honor if the Newseum in Washington ever decides to add a Hall of Horrors.

More recently, with the economy tanking and several notable papers folding, publishers have become locked in furious competition to make new bad decisions. The Mercury News, soured by the loss of classified ads, announced that it will simply not publish any classifieds on Mondays and Tuesdays. This is apparently modeled after the decision by Detroit dailies, The Free Press and News, to halt home delivery on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday.

On the first day of Detroit's grand experiment, the city had its biggest flood of news in years with the forced resignation of GM's chairman, dramatic developments in Chrysler's ownership, and Michigan State's basketball team earning a spot in the NCAA's Final Four. So much for crafting a news distribution schedule that isn't based on, you know, news.

Maybe it’s too late to turn the tide, but I hope not. As a last resort, publishers might want to study the fact that every time a paper closes - Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, for example - it prints thousands of extra copies to meet the demand for what is presumably the final edition. Even the threat of closing, as executed brilliantly by Hearst with the San Francisco Chronicle, has brought not only union concessions but daily love letters from readers on the Chron's editorial page.

I know of a successful carpet store that has been holding a “Going Out of Business Sale” for the last six years.

Perhaps newspapers will wind up with a model based upon San Francisco, Detroit and carpet stores: sold only on newsstands on Mondays and Fridays; home delivered on Tuesdays and Saturdays; free on the Internet Wednesdays and Thursdays; and available in extra quantities on Sundays, because the next edition might be our last.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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