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Star Tribune files for bankruptcy

January 16th, 2009

The paper I grew up with, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this evening.

The filing had been expected for some time.  Still, it serves as a sobering reminder of just what a sorry state the newspaper industry is in at the moment.  The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy a month ago, and The New York Times is in such a perilous financial state that speculation is rampant on its fate.  Years of suckling at the sweet teat of classified ads, crushing debt loads, and general shifts towards electronic media have all contributed to the problem.

Still, there is a ray of light in the gloom that is print publications.  Hyperlocal newspapers, the 20,000-circulation dailies and weeklies are prospering.  Their hardest news tends to be disagreements about street maintenance at city council meetings, but that’s not the point.  These papers provide news coverage that is available nowhere else.  People don’t look at them for national news.  If you want to see photos from the local prep football game, the local daily is the place to go — not the 300,000-circ regional publication. More importantly, they provide advertising focus that is unrivaled: all of the readers are in the right place, and the rates are reasonable.

Although shrinking, there are still millions of people who are willing to dole out cash money for the privilege of getting their national news from dead trees. I still enjoy the serendipitous discovery of information while reading print newspapers; I maintain a subscription to The Wall Street Journal.  The experience is similar to reading a site like reddit or Digg: I read not to see a particular article, but rather for the pure joy of reading.

Each medium has its place: the internet for breaking news, print for in-depth analysis, and television for… nothing; most TV news is partisan rubbish.  What about hybrids, like the New York Times iPhone app or the Kindle?  Those are nice, but the experience is more akin to the internet than the paper.

In the future, I see the hyperlocal print papers flourishing by continuing their coverage of news that will remain ignored elsewhere.  I also see the survival of two or three national print papers to satisfy the customers who enjoy the national print experience.  Specifically, I believe that The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The New York Times will weather the storm (perhaps after restructuring in bankruptcy).  All of the mid-level papers are doomed.

The mid-levels — the Star Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Denver Post, to name a few — occupy the mushy middle.  They satisfy the needs of nobody well.  They increasingly rely on AP feeds to fill space as they trim their newsroom staffs, and that won’t provide enough differentiation from the nationals and the internet.  Some mid-levels may attempt an all-electronic route, but they would emerge fundamentally different: the revenue available to online plays cannot support staff sizes even approaching those of print.

Having worked at a newspaper, their demise makes me sad, but emotion alone will not salvage a broken business model.   Best of luck to them and their employees.

Update Jan 15, 11:12 p.m.: I see that some people have started a movement to make February 2 “Buy a Newspaper Day.”  While their hearts are in the right place, such efforts won’t fix the fundamental supply/demand imbalance.

  1. wojo
    January 16th, 2009 at 18:49 | #1

    i have to admit – i like a good newspaper quite a bit. however, i rarely set aside the time to read one…and this is probably because the internet has become such an easier place for me to read what i’m interested in for [practically] free.

    with regard to “buy a newspaper day” and the supply/demand imbalance: if the business model doesn’t work, then it needs to fail otherwise it will just bring down whatever it is that is holding it afloat.

    [sarcasm embedded with truth] why doesn’t the government just bail them out? [/sarcasm embedded with truth]

  2. keacher
    January 17th, 2009 at 14:43 | #2

    I agree that businesses must be allowed to fail. Companies that beg the government for artificial support are just sore losers.

    I hope that the mid-level newspapers will fail with honor and dignity instead of going to Uncle Sam’s door.

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