How to Destroy a Newspaper in Six Easy Steps

Jeff Alworth

1. Ignore trends and stick with a midcentury business model. Sure, ink drums, giant printing presses, and a corps of people delivering day-old news printed on pulped trees is expensive, but the newspaper business is easy if you follow the three-part revenue model of classified, obituaries, and lucrative local business advertising. It worked in 1950, so there's no reason to think it can't work in the 21st century. We're golden, baby.

2. Make a crappy website that won't compete with your print product. One should at least make a gesture to this internet thing--it will help a paper look modern and appeal to the under-60s. It can be a useful tool to drive people to subscriptions, too. Just make sure the layout is Web 1.0 ugly. Junk it up with especially cheap-looking ads and make it nearly impossible to navigate. Post content capriciously and inconsistently. Make commenting hard. When your reporters post blogs, make sure they go to New Jersey for review.

3. Cut local coverage. No one cares about the Portland City Council or Clackamas County. Metrics like traffic to local stories on the crappy website illustrate how these stories underperform financially. Dump them.

4. Fire reporters. Experienced reporters are expensive. While it's true they have become experts in their fields and have an extensive network of sources, it hardly matters once you've cut way back on content, anyway. You can always hire them back as freelancers, anyway (say "Special to the Oregonian" under their names and no one will notice, anyway). Young reporters are cheap and they know how to Twit, or Tweeter, or whatever.

5. Raise subscription fees. Yikes, circulation is down 18% from five years ago--time to raise subscription fees. It's worth it, though, for a premier daily.

6. De-emphasize delivery and focus on your crappy website. Good thing you invested in that kick-ass website--it's a rocketship to the future! What could go wrong?

Epilogue. I canceled my subscription to the Oregonian this morning. It's something I've been planning to do for months, but habit and nostalgia kept me on the hook. By chance, I was in Astoria when the paper announced plans to cut delivery to four days and fire another batch of staff. In the Saturday Daily Astorian, publisher Steve Forrester wrote what amounted to an obituary of Portland's daily while I was there.

Thursday’s announcement is only the most startling moment in a process that many have seen coming for years. For instance, when The Oregonian reduced its service to Eastern Oregon, its claim on being our statewide news medium was compromised. Major price hikes also caused reduced circulation in Clatsop County. But while raising its subscription price, the newspaper hemorrhaged newsroom talent and offered readers less.

He cites their failure to hone in on local stories as one of the biggest mistakes, and offers the bold (and I think correct) prediction that Willamette Week is in the best position to dominate the digital future. He points out that OPB is now the effective state news source, and WW has seized the metro area. The O is now casting around to find its place in a far more dangerous landscape in a realm (digital) to which it has long been antagonistic.

For my side, the actual trigger came after I talked to a long-time employee who had an even longer-tenured spouse. After the latest news came out, the spouse, a 28-year veteran, got a pile of threatening legalese by way of thanks. We joked darkly about how threats are the new gold watches. Over the past 15 years, I've been rooting mightily for the Oregonian to succeed. The press is critical to democracy and community. But in that decade and a half, the publishers have been contemptuous of its staff, readers, and friendly critics who tried to warn of a very different digital future to which it needed to adapt. The O didn't adapt, and now it's come to this sorry place. In the meantime, though, we did see the market adapt. Willamette Week, the Mercury, OPB and others have picked up the slack. Losing the Oregonian now isn't so much a threat to our collective knowledge about our state as it is just a sad decline. But for me, it was long past time to cut the cord.

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