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MATTERS AT HAND: Change built a better newspaper business

Mike Jacobs

Of course, it’s a cliché to say that the only constant is change. But the only constant is change, at least in the newspaper business.

Honestly, I wish I had something more insightful to say as I approach the end of a career that spans almost 50 years in the newspaper business.

The truth is, I’ve spent my career managing change.

I started in a “hot type” shop. An industrial marvel called a linotype machine created the raised lettering used to print the newspaper. Basically, this amounted to pouring molten metal into a mold that matched the letters. The process was noisy and aromatic.

I miss it!

I’ve lost count of the number of iterations typesetting has gone through in the past half century. Today, it’s computerized. The plates that go on the press are produced in a process called “computer-to-plate.”

At least, that much is the same. The newspaper still is a printed product, the result of a manufacturing process. It still lands on the doorstep before dawn.

But that’s only part of it.

There’s a big part of the newspaper that literally never leaves the computer. The Herald has more readers online these days than it does in print.

Online advertising accounts for an increasing share of revenue, too.

But readership online provides very little revenue at all.

The business model has changed. Newspaper publishers used to strive for 40 percent of revenue from circulation, with the rest coming from advertising.

Advertising is different, too. At one time, most advertising was printed alongside the news. Today, most printed advertising — as opposed to the online kind — comes as supplements to the news product. We call these “inserts” in the trade.

So, the newspaper is in the business of delivering advertising. These inserts are a very important part of our business.

The inserts have reduced the number of pages that the Herald prints on any given day. The paper is smaller.

That doesn’t mean there is less news in the paper. News items take up a greater percentage of the total pages printed than they used to.

The news has changed.

It used to be that national and international news dominated the front pages of the Herald. For many years, I told our newsroom crew that the formula for the front page should be “Local. Local. Local. And the biggest national or international story of the day.”

Now, it’s all local almost all the time.

This is a response to the explosion of information sources. News travels faster than ever before, and often the big news of the day is old news by the time the newspaper is printed.

Not so the ins and outs of the community, though. The Herald’s niche is local coverage.

Expectations of the newspaper have changed, too, both inside and outside of newspaper offices. It used to be that news people thought our job is “to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted,” a phrase that originated with Mr. Dooley, the alter-ego of Chicago newspaper man Finley Peter Dunne.

Today’s readers expect the newspaper to comfort them. In a time of rapid change — and some disorientation — people look to the newspaper as a kind of constant, representative of a more settled time.

The appearance of the newspaper each morning is reassuring. We at the Herald learned this lesson during the Flood of 1997. I’ll never forget delivering copies of the Herald to a flood shelter. People actually embraced me. That’s how important the Herald was then.

Our ability to publish every day is what attracted the attention of the Pulitzer Prize judges after the flood. It’s certainly the greatest achievement of my tenure here.

Nowadays, readers look to the newspaper to reaffirm traditional values, too. That kind of content — often in personal columns — draws praise. Our coverage of changing morals often draws criticism.

Expectations change. Content changes. Advertising patterns change. Business models change.

Change brings challenge, of course.

It’s no secret that the newspaper business had some tough times financially. Some of the retrenching was painful. Jobs were lost; lives were disrupted. Scars remain.

It’s important to understand, though, that a stronger business emerged from this process — a business that positioned to weather whatever change comes our way.