Nostalgia can’t keep newspapers alive

I keep a little piece of New York City in my kitchen, a set of porcelain cups that are exact replicas of the blue-and-white paper cups that you get when you grab a take-out coffee from any one of New York’s diners and coffee shops.

The iconic “We are happy to serve you” cups remind me of the New York Daily News. The two used to go hand-in-hand; coffee and The News. But not anymore.

The owners of the Daily News are cutting the newsroom staff in half, down, by some reports, to 45 people. Print circulation, once nearly 3 million, has slipped to 200,000 in a city of 8.5 million.

The News is a tabloid in the best sense of the word. Great headlines, great sports section, unpretentious, and an obsessive focus on local coverage.

In the face of severe circulation and advertising declines, there is no doubt new approaches is needed. In announcing the staff cuts, the owners of the Daily News also announced it would refocus coverage on breaking news about crime, civil justice and public responsibility.

This is an experiment worth watching, for if local news cannot survive in New York City, it doesn’t bode well for local papers everywhere. Or as the former editor, Jim Rich, who was let go in the latest purge, put it: “If you hate democracy and think local governments should operate unchecked and in the dark, then today is a good day for you.”

It is hard to see how a decimated newsroom will be able to satisfy readers and provide adequate coverage, even with its reduced mission. When quality declines, people notice. There are already too many examples of editorial staff reductions resulting in “press release copy/paste” style journalism, causing readership to tumble even further.

Publishers are trying to strike a difficult balance between delivering quality editorial products and running newsrooms efficiently and keeping costs down. But the benefits of cutting staff and doubling up tasks can be illusory. You can’t stop audience slide by reducing quality and depth of coverage (a more holistic approach to digital disruption can be found here).

This isn’t a problem for publishers alone. As they struggle to reduce costs while maintaining quality, revenue continues to slide. The core problem is maintaining relevance in the digital age. Both audience and advertisers are leaving, believing they can find what they need elsewhere in the digital universe.

But it is no coincidence that the decline of the audience for traditional media is being accompanied by a corresponding erosion in traditional democratic values. The role of independent media in maintaining democracy is often underappreciated by readers and viewers who take that role for granted or have lost faith in the press as an institution. Fewer people think they need what traditional media provide, or are unwilling to pay for it.

I buy the Daily News and a take-out coffee whenever I’m in New York City and that lets me know I’m home. But newspapers cannot survive on nostalgia. They can only survive if they are essential to their audience and part of their lives.

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