Trib Total Media’s shift toward a digital-only model is playing out amid a larger narrative of an entire industry in transition.
As its print edition folds, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review will continue as a free, digital-only publication. Its parent company will shunt staff and resources to its Westmoreland and Valley News Dispatch editions, where local readership is strong. In an announcement to staff on Wednesday, President and CEO Jennifer Bertetto said that the company’s commitment to covering news in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County will change only in format, not substance.
That’s not how it works out, said John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University and creator of a blog called “It’s Good To Live in a Two-Daily Town.”
“People are thinking, ‘It’ll be the same content, it’ll just be on a different platform.’ You can not support a news-gathering operation at the same level with digital-only revenues,” Carroll said, "because they can’t support the same level of staffing."
Since July 2015, more than half of Trib Total Media’s 1,100 employees have resigned, accepted buyouts or been laid off. While the company looks to strengthen its regional coverage, the reconfiguration of the Pittsburgh edition underscores the stressors on the newspaper industry: declining subscriber base, limited advertising revenue and the challenge of getting people to pay for digital content.
“There are just really limited ways for the situation to resolve itself, and I think that’s what’s keeping newspaper executives up at night,” said Carroll. “The struggle is partly for how to structure the news organization, but the bigger struggle is how to convince the public that what [newspapers] have is distinctive enough and worthwhile enough and valuable enough to pay money for.”
Carroll said having two competing papers makes for better, more enterprising coverage. Without it, readers won’t know what they don’t know.
According to Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2016” report, 2009 was the start of an abysmal trend for the newspaper industry.
Ad revenues for publicly traded newspaper companies that year plummeted by more than 25 percent, and the first wave of large circulation metropolitan newspapers began rethinking the standard business model. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped distributing a print edition, becoming an online-only publication. Others, such as Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, closed up shop entirely. Since then, publicly reported ad revenues have steadily fallen by 5 to 8 percent each year.
The industry has also experienced a trend toward consolidation in recent years as large media conglomerates have moved to acquire cash-strapped news dailies.
Perhaps the biggest player in the rush to buy up news properties has been Gannett Co.
Earlier this year, the Virginia-based publisher of USA Today finalized a $280 million deal to buy Journal Media Group, giving the company an inventory of more than 100 daily newspapers in 34 states and Guam. Gannett also made a play this year to acquire Tronc, Inc., formerly Tribune Publishing, when it made an unsolicited bid to buy the company that was later rebuffed.
The compounding changes to the industry has ultimately led publishers to substantial cuts to newsroom staffs as papers attempt to balance news production with the amount of money available to pay for it.
According to a 2015 newsroom census conducted by the American Society of News Editors, newspapers nationally employed a total workforce of 55,000 in 2007. In 2015, that number had fallen 32,900, a decline of about 40 percent.
Tribune-Review leaders cited similar transitions at the Detroit Free Press, Christian Science Monitor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said those cases show the move carries a certain degree of risk.
“As they put less of an emphasis on print, they were hoping that a big surge in audience would follow in digital, and to some extent they’ve been pretty successful, but the business payoff hasn’t been there.”
It remains unclear, though, whether a transition to a web-only news distribution model means a paper like the Tribune-Review will be able to grow its audience or retain its current readership, even if the move makes ultimate sense for Trib Total Media’s bottom line.
Citing numbers from Nielsen Scarborough’s 2015 Newspaper Penetration Report, Pew’s “State of the Media” indicates physical print formats remain the way most newspapers reach their audience with 51 percent of readers saying the access newspaper content exclusively in print.
Relative to recent years, though, that number has also fallen from 2011, when 62 percent of readers indicated having a print-only relationship with their newspaper of choice.