Wednesday, June 11, 2008

That Lee Bureau

Lamnidae (a new read to me, so h/t LITW) makes a good point about the closing of Lee Enterprises' Washington Bureau. At some point, the question becomes: Who will survive, and how?

Both Editor and Publisher and American Journalism Review hit my desk yesterday with gloomy articles about the prospects for newspapers. E&P shows Lee stock as the worst-performing among eight big publicly traded newspaper companies from May 2007 to May 2008. In terms of circulation losses, Lee is a bit better than average at -3.1 percent, with the worst performance at Lee's newest and biggest paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Exclude the Pulitzer papers, and Lee fell only 1.9 percent, quite a bit better than average.

AJR predicts that a lot of major metros just won't survive. Papers big enough to draw a national audience, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have a chance, as do papers small enough to fly under the radar. But those in the middle are already seeing falling print revenues and flattening online advertising and readership. The chance that they will grow fast enough online to offset print declines is small and diminishing.

It's interesting to speculate about where The Billings Gazette falls along that curve. In terms of circulation, it's a small daily, but that's only because Montana is such a small market. In terms of its role in the marketplace, it's probably more like a regional metro, such as those in Denver or Cleveland or Dallas.

So is it doomed? Dunno, and I don't worry about it much. Just getting the Outpost to survive is plenty enough challenge for me. But it does seem that papers in the Gazette's niche really hurt themselves when they abandon Washington coverage. Bloggers can opine as well as anybody, and the big dailies can cover national issues, but a regional perspective on issues that affect Montana directly is something that only a company like Lee can provide (at least so far). Why give up one thing you have that's still working?


Mark T said...

One thing I have noticed about Montana journalism in general - all of it - is that you all tend to leave elected officials in DC alone. They go about their business behind a screen - our only exposure to them is their press releases and an occasional outing by The Hill or some other such DC magazine. Once every two (or six) years they come out from behind the screen and blow smoke at us, and even then you don't cover them well, asking them easy questions at staged debates and in general giving them deference they have not earned.

I have wondered why, and conclude that the newspaper owners and publishers, and often enough editors, who usually live in the gated communities, and TV station owners have common interest with the wealthy classes that otherwise govern us, and no interest in interfering with the backroom business that is the business of Washington.

Therefore, when you have a reporter back there, he or she is shackled, and more often, they just drop the pretense and don't bother to report at all.

But there was a day when Montana papers did have a DC Bureau, and they covered Mansfield and Metcalf and Battin, and they were just plain sycophants. It was better not to bother than to do that.

Anonymous said...

Now Lee can just do the same biased coverage that supports their editorial page via press releases...