Florida’s once mighty newspapers are dying because they refuse to evolve

by | Feb 27, 2020

In the past month, Florida’s two mightiest newspapers have been socked with devastating financial news: bankruptcy for the Miami Herald’s parent company, McClatchy, and embarrassing pay cuts for the staff at the Tampa Bay Times.

The handwriting has been on the wall for the newspaper industry for nearly two decades: evolve or die. In the cases of both the Herald and the Times, their editors and executive leadership have apparently chosen to die.

They would argue this conclusion, of course. If asked about it, they’d claim they’ve radically transformed their operations many times over, in an effort to stave off decreasing revenue streams from newspaper subscriptions and advertising.

They’d be wrong.

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, like a great many other newspapers across the nation, haven’t evolved at all. They’ve simply experimented with a wide variety of increasingly ineffective measures designed to stop the financial bleeding caused by the rapid and free flow of information via the internet.

Both the Times and Herald have experimented with redesigned websites that prioritize ad delivery over user experience, paywalls that prevent potential users from accessing information they can get freely from other sources, and arrogant, lopsided advocacy promoted under the guise of “objective journalism.” In the Miami Herald’s case, they’ve also unionized their workforce, openly exposing their predilection for collectivism over rugged individualism.

One can hardly blame them for clinging to the old business model as long as they can.

But none of those measures addressed the fundamental, underlying issues, and that’s because those at the helm of the Times and the Herald believe they are dying because the Internet is devouring their advertising and subscription dollars.

Losing revenue is just a symptom, not the actual cause of their troubles.

The truth of the matter is that the internet is actually devouring the power and influence that the Times and the Herald once wielded. With diminished power and influence comes diminished revenue.

The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times wielded tremendous power and influence because they controlled the flow of information that shaped public discourse. But over the past two decades, as the internet loosened the newspaper’s oligarchical grip on that information, the Times and Herald sought to restrict access and continue with business as usual.

The solution to their problems isn’t difficult to see. But it is difficult to implement because it requires soul-searching, tough decisions, deep organizational cuts, and a willingness to acknowledge what they have long denied: they are advocacy media, and they peddle influence. Period.

They won’t admit that anytime soon, though, because they are led, managed and staffed by old-school journalists who refuse to acknowledge the fundamental truth that, despite their claims to be “objective journalists,” they’ve always been advocacy journalists fighting for the causes and issues they think are important.

There is nothing wrong with that. It’s exactly what The Capitolist does. It’s exactly what Florida Politics does. It’s exactly what The Florida Phoenix does. It’s exactly what Politico Florida does. The only difference is in how each organization defines what is important and worthy of advocacy. For The Capitolist, its free markets, common sense public policy, and center-right principles.

For the Times and Herald, it has always been important to prioritize the perception of journalistic integrity and the perception of objectivity over all else.

That model, however, is officially dead as a doornail. There is no longer any value in it, in part because both the Times’ and Herald’s journalistic objectivity have been shown to be lacking time and again. Their reporters, through no fault of their own, inevitably allow their own inherent bias and worldview into their work. It’s only human to do so. Nor is it wrong.

What is wrong is to claim such biases don’t exist when they clearly do. For most of their existence, the Times and Herald could lay claim to the moral high ground on the basis of their objectivity, fairness and authority, When they controlled the flow of information, who could argue with them?

But the internet era exposed an alarming lack of objectivity, while eroding their authority. And yet, both the Herald and Times continue to operate as though nothing has changed.

If these once mighty newspapers hope to survive it will only happen if they recognize the reality that now controls their fate: information moves rapidly, and there is no longer any viable business model that can contain it long enough to sell it at a price high enough to sustain their operations at the level they once enjoyed.

Make no mistake, it appears possible to sell information to a relatively small number of subscribers willing to pay a premium for timely, relevant content. Politico Florida has thrived under that model for nearly four years now. But they run a lean organization, comprised of only a handful of reporters who are excellent and sniffing out stories that are relevant to subscribers. And while Politico Florida strives to keep editorialized content out of their news stories, and doesn’t waste resources paying their team to write opinion editorials, they still peddle influence in the form of “advertorial” ads and they still shape the day’s narrative with colorful analysis in their daily Playbook email newsletter.

There are other viable business models, too:

The Florida Phoenix is funded by a wealthy benefactor that seeks to promote progressive values. It’s no secret that the Phoenix leans pretty far to the left, nor is that a problem, since they don’t bother to claim otherwise.

Meanwhile, Florida Politics makes money covering niche news stories that are important to political operatives, elected officials, and political pubic relations firms, to name a few. Because Florida’s most powerful officials read those stories, there is no shortage of advertisers and sponsors lining up to cut a check.

For what it’s worth, The Capitolist’s business model also relies on advertisers and sponsors. In our case, business groups, big companies, small firms, industry associations and political advocacy groups support our work because we support principles they believe are essential to their survival and success.

The Times and Herald will never regain their former glory, but they can survive if they can shake free of obsolete thinking and attempts to salvage their once-considerable authority. But to do so, they should empower their reporters by doing away with expensive editors who add little value, they should acknowledge their advocacy for specific issues, and find like-minded organizations and entities willing to support their coverage. Finally, they should build user-friendly websites that deliver the day’s news without pop-up ads, slow-loading pages due to advertising code, endless ads that break up story content, and backward thinking site features that don’t allow easy syndication (like RSS feeds) of their content that would drive additional clicks to their pages.

The days of wasting $30 million on naming rights at the local hockey arena are over. The cash will never flow as freely as it once did because newspapers are no longer the premier information authority. Sooner or later, newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald will figure that out, or they’ll die trying.

 

 

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