On February 1, Syracuse’s Post-Standard newspaper, which was founded in 1829 as the Onondaga Standard, will convert to a “print-plus” model that will feature home delivery three days a week and a smaller, newsstand product the other four days. This is hardly a revolutionary take. Several other papers, including the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and a collection of smaller dailies in Michigan – all of which are owned by the same company as the Post-Standard – have undergone similar personality transplants, with an eye on an eventual, full-time digital presence.
The goal is to beat the clock. There can be no denying that newspapers will be extinct at some point, although it’s premature to predict their demise by the end of this decade. But the Post-Standard’s print-plus concept is a way of making a definitive step toward the inevitable, while still holding on to a vestige of its proud past. By trying to blend the tangible newspaper product with the digital world, the Post-Standard is easing toward its future incarnation. For dinosaurs like myself, it’s a sad day. For the 30% of the workforce that will no longer work for the company on February 1, it’s an even sadder day.
But newspapers had better be careful about what happens when they make the move to the digital world, especially in regard to sports. Because once they lose their primary identities, they are joining a delivery model that has far greater competition and an established methodology that could bury them in the long run.
The rising costs of paper, delivery mechanisms (trucks, drivers, etc.), printing apparati, coupled with diminishing income from almost non-existent classified ads, dwindling traditional advertising revenues and declining circulation totals have forced newspapers to re-think their ways of doing business. But just jumping onto the cyber newsstand isn’t necessarily the answer. Once there, papers will encounter companies and individuals far better suited to provide the information media consumers want.
That is evident nowhere more than in the world of sports, where newspapers have already ceded national ground to sites like Yahoo, ESPN and Sports Illustrated. As they wade onto the Internet in an increasingly more thorough way, they will find stiff competition for local eyes from regional sportsnets that are beefing up their sites, local network TV affiliates and a variety of homegrown Internet content providers who have established fan bases. That doesn’t even include the professional and college teams that have worked to make their sites more attractive to fans, many of whom aren’t discerning enough to know the difference between “official” content and objective reporting. Yes, readers will often reference multiple sites, but they will have to break established habits if they want to visit the papers’ homes.
The one benefit newspapers had was their one-stop-shopping component. People could get a host of items tied into one package. Although these “media companies” will no doubt offer even more on their sites, thanks to a lack of page constraints, they are fighting a difficult battle, because those people who are devoted paper readers now (largely over 30 and even 35 years) are less comfortable getting their news from a device, and those who are in the target audience for an on-line product have established patterns and are not at all wedded to the newspaper brand, so getting them to switch over will be tough.
Sports sections must be able to build alliances, the better to steer traffic to their addresses. They will need to grab highlights and commentary from sportsnets, partner with established local sites to augment their coverage and build careful bonds with the teams they cover to remain relevant as fans look toward “official” sites for their information. All the while, they will be fighting a tough battle to get people to look their way. It may turn out that the digital iterations of newspapers abandon national news, pare down coverage of local professional sports and focus on the colleges and especially high schools. Of course, doing that would bring daily versions into contact with the weeklies, which specialize in neighborhood coverage.
It could well turn out that the move to the digital world marks the ultimate demise of daily newspapers. Yes, it will be basically impossible to remain solvent as ink-and-paper products, as habits change, and their base of customers shrinks through attrition. But moving to the digital world isn’t necessarily the answer, especially for sports sections that must now compete in a much more crowded arena. Editors must find ways to recreate the impact of banner headlines in an on-line world. They must continue to devote (shrinking) resources to larger, investigative pieces that can make a difference to readers. And the must do it all for consumers who don’t consider them the primary source of information.
Some may consider the Post-Standard’s move “inevitable,” but it likely is much more than the next step in the traditional newspaper endgame. It could well represent the finish line for the concept of an all-encompassing local and national forum of information. With the digital world filled with myriad options, the Post-Standard and others like it may not be able to find a profitable place in the game.
Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.