Out with the Old, and in with the New: the Unnecessary Social Media Trade-Off

It was a shock to both Penny Parker and Mike Littwin this past Wednesday when they found out they would soon be jobless. Parker, a business and social living columnist, and Littwin, an op-ed columnist, are both popular writers for The Denver Post. After their previous newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, shut down in February 2009, both of them transferred over to The Denver Post and have been described as “critical voices in the community”.

While the idea of print newspapers losing sales due to the free-range accessibility of online news is not exactly novel, what is shocking is the precedent being set by one of the top circulating newspapers in the country. For one thing, letting go of columnists does not seem like the best way to increase your profits, especially if they are well-liked. Even though The Denver Post is decreasing its expenses, the effects of this lay-off are more than fiscal.

What about the audience? What about the people who read the paper, not for the barebones news (which could be found anywhere), but for the unique and well-established opinions and perspectives which emerge from it? While it is true that people still read print newspapers for the news itself, the underlying truth is that the generation of people who still remain faithful to the print are doing so because they are set in their traditions and routines; they’re not accustomed to the quotidian use of computers that the Digital generation has taken for granted, and they keep coming back for more because of the familiar personalities who narrate their morning cup of coffee when they start their day. The people who have remained faithful to The Denver Post have done so because the columnists have given the newspaper a personality and a liveliness. What happens when this uniqueness is stripped from the paper; what is its future?

In no way am I saying that newspapers should not be evolving with the times; I think it’s crucial that local newspapers like the Post have implemented applications in order to more immediately reach their audience. What I don’t think is intelligent, however, is the obvious trade-off of the old for the new. Does the Denver Post really need to invest its money into funding the software for sixteen different applications? How much of a profit is (or is not) being made from these enterprises that newspaper personalities, even established community names, should be fearful of losing their jobs?

What brings me the most anxiety is the two-dimensionality of the issue: when print is doing poorly, newspapers simply get rid of columnists in order to cater to the “hip” social media. Dynamic thinking in every respect is necessary for newspapers to flourish. With that being said, I don’t think newspapers should feel the urge to sacrifice jobs for the sake of competing with the internet; innovative ways of thinking about media are necessary for its continuous development, and there are plenty of viable options that could be pursued with success if planned correctly. In Pew’s most recent report on the state of the media, local newspapers who have implemented the use of multiple revenue streams have seen positive results. The Minn Post, for example, has remained lucrative through the multiple revenue source model, which includes advertising, foundations, and membership fees all as sources of income for the paper. In achieving fiscal success through innovative business planning, newspapers can continue to provide the same content it did beforehand while still remaining flexible for the future.

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4 Responses to Out with the Old, and in with the New: the Unnecessary Social Media Trade-Off

  1. David says:

    I think Anna and Nick makes valid points. It’s also worth noting that the lack of competition means that the Denver Post shouldn’t expect to see too much of a demise in readership from this move. As the Pew Internet Report, “How People Learn About Their Community,” discussed, most people get their local news from newspapers (and televisions). People want to read, and if they want to read about local news, I don’t think they will turn to their TV sets.

    This is lamentable, for sure. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the wrong business move. Then again, I don’t have access to the Post’s financials.

  2. Shunori says:

    This is an interesting take on the “old vs. new” debate. While I agree that losing columnists that people enjoy and look forward to reading is potentially harmful to a paper, I’m not sure if they are being laid off in this case in order to increase funds for their digital operations. Do we know if they have plans to create a new app or hire more online reporters/journalists?

  3. Nick Defiesta says:

    It’s interesting that The Denver Post is facing this problem despite a lack of competition. Part of it, I know, is from the demise of the Joint Operating Agreement between the Post and the Rocky Mountain News that ended when the News stopped printing in 2009 — the lack of cost-sharing can often do more harm to a paper than the benefits of a lack of competition. To me, this is just another manifestation of the underlying problem facing most media at the moment: declining readership.
    Like Anna said, the newspaper is then forced to make cuts, which in this case they chose to make from personnel. I guess we can just hope that the paper’s choices of cuts are the right ones.

  4. Anna says:

    Interesting point, Raquel. I agree it is unfortunate more reporters at The Denver Post are getting laid off. I do think, though, that this may not have been a conscious choice to replace columnists with digital apps. Developing apps costs significantly less than employing full-time columnists. The Denver Post faces serious financial problems and has had to layoff many of its columnists in the past. When you’re losing profits that quickly, isn’t the responsible thing to stay afloat, even if it does cause unfortunate tradeoffs?
    Still, given their tight budget, I agree that all the capital they are investing in their digital apps may not be worthwhile. A recent Pew report confirms that digital gains don’t make up for losses in old media revenues.

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