Death in the Afternoon Morning

Few would dispute that one of the keys to the Seattle Times’ Darwinian triumph over the rival P-I was its success in altering the terms of their Joint Operating Agreement to allow the Blethens to shift publication from the afternoon to the morning. Afternoon papers had been declining for decades, and the Times was intent on avoiding what former Executive Editor Michael Fancher dubbed “death in the afternoon.”

Ironically, now that the dead-tree version of the P-I is dead, and the omnipresent Internet has compressed the news cycle to the point where it has disappeared entirely, I can’t help but wonder if a shift back to the afternoon slot might not be the Times’ best strategy for long-term print survival?

Conventional wisdom states that the rise of TV news conspired with changing demographics and commuting patterns to condemn most afternoon newspapers to a slow but inevitable death. While print and TV newsrooms both faced similar deadlines for their evening editions, the live format of the latter made their reports fresher in appearance if not in actually substance, and certainly took less effort to consume. The once-dominant afternoon papers still outnumbered their morning cousins as late as 1999, but they were gradually losing the battle against their 1950′s-era new media competition: TV. Nationally, paid daily afternoon newspaper circulation peaked in 1968 at about 37 million; by 2008 it was under 6 million. And falling.

The morning newspaper’s heyday was much more recent, with circulation peaking at 47 million as recently as 2003, but those numbers have declined nearly 9 percent over the past five years, and even that anemic performance is inflated by the continuing shift from afternoon to morning publication. Overall, daily newspaper circulation has declined 12 percent over past half decade to its lowest numbers since 1945. Afternoon paper circulation is now a little more than an afterthought, but the future of the morning paper looks just as dim.

The culprit today is of course the Internet, which makes the process of reporting, delivering and consuming news virtually instantaneous. For example, today at 5:43 AM PST, the AP buzzed a breaking news notification to my iPhone: “Weekly claims for jobless benefits plunge to 466,000, lowest level in more than a year.” That same “news” won’t be reported in the print edition of the Seattle Times until tomorrow morning, to be read by subscribers more than 24-hours after it broke. And the rest of tomorrow’s Times will be at least half a day old by the time subscribers extract it from its protective armor of rubber bands and plastic bags.

So really… why even bother?

It’s easy to imagine a not too distant future in which Seattle becomes a no-newspaper town, at least if you consider “paper” an integral part of the definition. That doesn’t mean the Times (or even the P-I) will necessarily cease to exist, just their print publication. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way?

With their modern typesetting and printing facilities, the Times could easily publish an afternoon edition filled with same-day news only a couple hours old… nearly, if not quite as up-to-date as their website. Newsprint may be an anachronistic medium for delivering news in the digital age, but it would be a little less so if the news it delivered wasn’t so damn old. Perhaps that’s not enough to compete with coming age of Kindles, Nooks, eReaders and iPads (or whatever Apple’s much anticipated tablet is called).

But perhaps it’s worth a try?

Comments

  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    “While print and TV newsrooms both faced similar deadlines for their evening editions, the live format of the latter made their reports fresher in appearance if not in actually substance, and certainly took less effort to consume.”

    I dunno Goldy. TV “news” really doesn’t contain any news. All the local TV “news” shows are reality-cop shows. There’s nothing in them except crime blotter stuff. It’s gotta be embarrassing for a serious anchor like Enerson (although I’m sure Hutch could have handled the new format with aplomb, because she’s not serious either). If you want local news, you still have to get it from the print media or, increasingly, local blogs.

  2. 2

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    “Newsprint may be an anachronistic medium for delivering news in the digital age”

    Newsprint was never a medium for delivering news, even in the linotype age. The business model has always been to fill the paper with grocery coupons worth more than the paper costs. What’s killing newspapers is being able to print grocery coupons off the internet on your home printer. Judging by how many Republicans have been elected over the last 100 years, it’s obvious nobody ever read the goddam paper, they only clipped out the coupons.

    Speaking of home printers, Xerox was pretty damned clever when they put all the moving parts in the replaceable ink cartridge. My b/w laser printer is now 12 years old; and a quarter million copies after taking it out of the box, the sucker still runs like it’s immortal. What probably will eventually force me to retire it is unavailability of ink cartridges, not mechanical failure.

  3. 3

    uptown spews:

    The Times could start the day with a nice commuter friendly freebie paper, and then move on to the hard core reporting for the afternoon.

    Of course, you need real reporters to do this. Nobody wants to pay for rehashed AP trash.

  4. 6

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @5 Appears to be a circular link back to here. Anyway, that’s for inkjet printers, and mine’s a laser. Thanks anyway.

  5. 7

    tpn spews:

    Weekly claims for jobless benefits plunge to 466,000, lowest level in more than a year.

    Gotta love that. How about “patient isn’t bleeding as heavily as yesterday, he’s practically cured”.

  6. 8

    40-year Voter spews:

    Library archives contain afternoon editions of the Seattle Times that included events that occurred midday the same day! Even with Linotype machines and lead plates, they could break out the front page and insert late-breaking news, cast a new plate, and have it back on the press in time to get the papers to the carriers for afternoon delivery. Really amazing when you think about the technology they were working with.

    Of course with computer makeup and offset printing, that same process would be much easier today.

    One of the big problems cited by the Times, why they wanted to go to morning delivery, is traffic. It became a problem getting their trucks through afternoon traffic to get the papers to the carriers and street boxes. Especially from their remote printing plant in Bothell.

    Yes, it would be nice to have a quality news product waiting for me at home every evening, but prospects seem dubious in a congested metro area like Seattle.

  7. 9

    rhp6033 spews:

    I think “newspapers” is an obsolete term, anyway. With Twitter or news feeds to our local computer or cell phone, there’s not much that happens that we don’t know about pretty soon. Why pay to read wire-service copy you’ve already read five times and heard on the radio twice before you get home from work? At that point it doesn’t matter if it’s printed in the evening or the next morning, it’s already old news.

    Even the local TV news doesn’t really cover news, it’s full of breathless reporters covering the local shooting and trying to make it sound like it’s an exciting event. The story invariably has a reporter standing in front of a police station or shooting location, with only crime scene tape visable in the background, with the reporter illuminated by kleig lights and standing under an umbrella. They interview bystanders who all proclaim how they are “very concerned” that an assailant might be loose in the area (Gee, what surprising “news”!).

    Next, the “weather reporter” tries to make a 20% chance of snow above 2,000 feet sound as if we are all about to die in a sudden Ice Age burying us under ten feet of snow within the next four hours, unless we stay tuned (to learn how to avoid the snow?).

    I think the key to the Times surviving is to focus on good content and move more to a magazine format. They need good investigative journalism, or writing really good articles analyizing major issues which are important locally (no need to try to compete with Newsweek, etc. on national issues). Give people a reason to read the paper that goes beyond re-printing wire service copy that we’ve already seen on several web sites or e-mail alerts.

    Unfortunately for the Times, gone are the days when my Dad would come home from work, take off his tie and shoes, and lean back in his recliner to read the evening paper while Mom got dinner ready. The newspaper format no longer works in the morning, either, as people don’t sit down for breakfast at home, and commuters find turning pages of a large-format newspaper inconvenient while on a crowded bus or train.

    So I don’t think changing the time of publication will help them much – they just need to produce something valuable enough that people will pay to read it.

  8. 10

    rhp6033 spews:

    Re-reading my post above, it seems to me that trying to shuffle back-and-forth between morning and evening editions is a bit like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Unless you change the basic facts (good local reporting and valuable analysis in the case of a newspaper), the result will be the same.

    Unfortunately, the trend at the Times and other newspapers (and radio too) is exactly the opposite – axe the local talent in favor of wire-service copy and syndicated features, to save money. I can just see the board meeting on that one – “Hey, we keep losing readers. What do we do?” “I know, we’ll reduce quality even more, and then maybe the readers will come back!”

  9. 13

    spews:

    Goldy @12:

    Nearly everybody read the Bulletin.

    So I heard, for all the years I lived in Philly.

    My family didn’t. I don’t think I paged through the Bulletin more than a handful of times, if that. Our afternoon paper was the Courier-Post.

  10. 14

    rhp6033 spews:

    In related news today:

    Washington Post closing several U.S. bureaus

    “NEW YORK – The Washington Post is closing its last U.S. bureaus outside the nation’s capital as the money-losing newspaper retrenches to focus on politics and local news.

    ‘At a time of limited resources and increased competitive pressure, it’s necessary to concentrate our journalistic firepower on our central mission of covering Washington and the news, trends and ideas that shape both the region and the country’s politics, policies and government,’ the newspaper’s top editor, Marcus Brauchli, wrote in a memo to employees that was obtained by Reuters.

    The Post will close its bureaus in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, effective December 31….”

    Source: Washington Post closing several U.S. bureaus

    Note that the article is posted by Reuters datemarked “updated 6:45 a.m. PT, Wed., Nov . 25, 2009″. That means you MIGHT be able to read it in the online edition of the Seattle Times, but good luck finding the story in today’s print edition. Maybe tomorrow?

  11. 15

    slingshot spews:

    To say their news is stale is downright charitable. Here’s a headline from yesterday’s ST:

    Confederate retreat at Sandersville, Georgia

  12. 16

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    A Swedish study shows men live longer if they release their anger. A Philly man who was arrested for flipping off a cop just won a $50K settlement. So the next time you get cut off and flipped off on I-5, remember that guy is merely doing his health exercises and you’re saving his life — then save your own by pushing the motherfucker into the guardrail! (I don’t know about you, but I don’t take shit from people who drive like Republicans.)

  13. 17

    Kalifornia Karl spews:

    A lot of what gets called news is really just data. Jobless claims — of what possible use is this arcane govt data that we know so little about how it gets compiled? There’s health “news,” entertainment “news” and I suppose you could get the latest Doonesbury “hot off the press” (as it were), but that doesn’t make it news. The only news that matters is — as Alex Jones puts in his new book “Losing the News,” is “iron core” news — what the Times found at the mayor’s office. (and KING and KIRO and P-I and Horses/ass did not), what research shows about local commercial real-estate, how everyone knew the arsonist but didn’t know he set the fires, why the strip-club people got their parking lot variance, how the schools protect coaches from punishment for abusing children — this iron-core news is not already old when it is published, it instead reverberates through the community, getting talked about, creating agendas, etc. 40-year-old voter is correct. Delivering a physical newspaper at rush hour is impossible. If you like, fire up the browser at 5 p.m., tell the old lady to get you a beer and fix dinner and kick back with the content (hint: it’s not all news).

  14. 18

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @9 “Unfortunately for the Times, gone are the days when my Dad would come home from work, take off his tie and shoes, and lean back in his recliner to read the evening paper while Mom got dinner ready.”

    Yeah, nowadays dads work 18-hour days and moms go to 2 jobs but they can’t afford a 75-cent newspaper. WAYTAGO CHEAP LABOR CONSERVATIVES! You raised billionaires’ living standards by lowering everyone else’s.

  15. 19

    spews:

    AP’s deal with google, and sent directly to your iPhone, make subscribing to AP a loser for any newspaper.
    If you are paying for content from a company that then participates in undercutting you, then there is no point.
    AP used to redirect clicks to a newspaper that subscribed to AP, now you get a google window.
    Seattle Times.com might as well aggragate AP stories and direct the clicks to google, and dump AP all together.
    They all might as well dump AP since the content is not purchased as an exclusive in the market.

    When government agencies get better at delivering thier data it will be pointless for a newspaper to repeat it.

    What the newspaper is left with is original reporting and the odd collection of olumnists, like Nichole Brodeur, that were replaced by bloggers a decade ago.
    The fact the ST boasted that they were collecting old media dinosaurs, uh, columnists, a few years ago was a clear sign to me that they had no idea what blogging was, and why it was eating them alive.

    At some point the press will have to stop giving it away for free online, and limit the number of paper deliveries to the money days, where they still deliver ads, Wednesday and Sunday. A twice a week in depth digest might be the other way they have to go to survive.

  16. 21

    spews:

    I miss afternoon papers. Back in the day my dad would bring home the Bulletin or the Trenton Evening Times in addition to the NY Times, which I always hated because it didn’t have comics.
    Unlikely that an afternoon edition of the Seattle Times can save the print edition, but it would be a bold and fun move. It won’t happen.

  17. 22

    Stinky Friedman spews:

    The paper is still valuable for dudes to read about their sports teams during lunch, or while on the shitter.

    An afternoon paper is of no value in the stall.

  18. 23

    ahow spews:

    40 yr old voter hit the nail on the head. Traffic and the havoc it played with afternoon delivery can’t be underestimated. Not that there weren’t other (machiavellian) reasons for going head to head in the AM (knowing they’d ultimately be the last ones standing- he who owns the presses…)