Newspaper print editions on shaky ground?

Newspapers 01

I’m both old and old-fashioned, so I still subscribe to the print editions of the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and I like to get most of my news there.

So I was surprised to open the very thin news section of my Salt Lake Tribune on Monday morning and find a grand total of three (yes, three) local by-lined hard news stories, plus one opinion column. That’s it. Three local news stories and one opinion column in the entire newspaper.

Two of the news stories were excellent, in-depth features, one on downtown expansion and the other on digital privacy concerns. Both started on the front page, where the opinion column on the mayoral campaign/inland port also started.  The third news story was about a Star Wars movie marathon on page A7.

The only other section of the newspaper, the sports section, wasn’t any better. It featured three local bylined news stories, one on U. football, one on the Utah Jazz, and one on BYU football, plus one brief story on U. volleyball.

Sure, it was Monday and the weekend might have been slow for local news. And, sure, perhaps more stories were posted on-line. The Tribune has a strong on-line edition. But it was still mind-boggling that a metropolitan newspaper would feature fewer than 10 local stories in a daily print edition. This has to be a record low number of stories for the printed Tribune.

I don’t blame the Tribune staff or its current management. After all, newspapers all over the country are suffering similar problems. And the Tribune has excellent journalists who produce fine content with in-depth enterprise coverage of important issues.

But there’s just a whole lot less of it than in the past. And, while big issues get proper attention, smaller news is almost non-existent. You can’t pick up your Tribune print edition and get a feel for what’s happening in your community.

I will further reveal my codgerhood by harking back to the good old days in the 1980s when I was the city editor of the Deseret News (do papers even have city editors anymore?) and later as managing editor. As city editor (in charge of local hard news) I was responsible for about 50 reporters, editors, photographers and graphic designers. We produced a heckuva lot of news stories.

We had full-time state government reporters, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County reporters, in addition to political reporters. We had full-time suburban reporters, two or three business reporters, a full-time urban affairs reporter, police reporters, courts reporters, full-time social services reporter, Washington, D.C. reporter, full-time environmental reporter, plus a number of other specialists. We had also had a Utah County bureau, and part-time “stringers” all over the state, overseen by a “state editor.” We had rewrite people, and general assignments reporters.

We had a dozen or so copy editors and national news editors that I wasn’t responsible for as city editor, and a large feature department for the softer news, plus editorial writers and an editorial columnist, and a big sports department.

That is amazing compared to today’s newsrooms.

We filled up lots of pages with lots of news, competed vigorously with the Tribune, and readers knew that if something happened we were going to be on it. We’d have 30-50 local stories in all newspaper sections, even on a Monday.

The Internet, Google, Facebook, other social media, Craigslist, blogs, etc., along with electronic devices connecting everyone to everything in real time, have blown up — totally disrupted — the old newspaper business models. Advertising in my Monday Tribune was barely noticeable.

By the way, the Deseret News had 20 local stories Monday morning in its print sections, including columns and briefs, as was counted for the Tribune – still not very many. The Deseret News has the advantage of being part of a family of news and information operations, which provides economies of scale, and it seeks to reach a national and international audience.

Obviously, the Tribune can’t keep trending this way. Why even have a Monday print edition if there’s little in it. Some papers are moving to three print editions a week, or eliminating print editions entirely. Over the next few years, we’ll see some changes.