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Lee Wolverton

Lee Wolverton

Struck by fits of illogic, rational sorts periodically attempt engagement with internet trolls only to learn this is like dining with piranhas, only the fish smell better and have more refined table manners.

Sharing thoughts on any platform, in fact, equates to opening a vein and bleeding in a tank filled with those freshwater carnivores. As a result, online criticisms like those leveled in response to last week’s offering in this space hardly shocked. Neither would a renewed round of roundhouses in response to this offering.

Working in newspapers at least accustoms one to exercises in futility. Thus, knowing the outcome the way a pilot knows how a landing will end when the engines are on fire, here goes:

Last week’s theme centered on the necessity of the newspaper business righting itself, rather than depending on faux solutions from Congress. That followed earlier offerings pointing out, among other things, that newspaper industry advertising revenue plunged from $49.8 billion to $8.8 billion from 2005 to 2020 and is trending toward zero in five years.

An industry business model that for generations spewed money — newspapers once routinely boasted annual margins ranging from 20% to 40% — has been shattered. That model once was driven by advertising. Revenue from that sector of the business increased 40 of 44 years starting in 1962, climbing from slightly more than $3 billion to the record high of 2005.

Now, for the first time since the Pew Research Center began tracking these data, dating to 1956, ad revenue has slipped below circulation revenue, a harbinger of the end for newspapers.

This is at least partly because, since 2005, Big Tech has monopolized the digital advertising market so that, as newspapers rapidly expanded digital audience, digital revenue did not expand in equal measure. Two companies, Google and Facebook, redirected the flow of digital ad money to them and away from those producing the content that drew people to their platforms.

HD Media, the company that produces this newspaper, responded earlier this year by filing an antitrust claim that is working its way through the courts.

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Other newspaper companies, in response to seeing the industry’s primary source of income shrivel by 82% over 15 years, turned to Washington for help, which is like grabbing an anvil on the way off the cliff. Their plan would get newspapers tax credits for employing journalists, a move that might delay doom but which would make it no less inevitable.

Explaining the latter assertion last week drew from under bridges to computers in their mothers’ basements predictable pucks, knuckles bloodied, saying predictable things, such as there being nothing to read in the paper anymore and how could I explain the decline of this paper because, obviously, I’m the one to blame for the collapse of an entire industry. No sound is sweeter to these people than the discordant melody of their fingers clicking and clacking on a keyboard, their drivel like hot air filling a balloon.

Apparently, for this group, the details of a revenue freefall did not provide sufficient grounds for deduction. So here it is in black and white: No newspaper of today looks like it did 20 years ago. Papers are smaller in size, page number and frequency and, of course, they are smaller in staff. Newspapers’ newsroom employment, once the highest in the news business, has plunged nearly 60% since 2008.

Newspaper executives have responded to the crisis with the intellectual dexterity of Elmer Fudd on the trail of that rascally rabbit with equal success. Their answer to every problem is to cut more, carrying out their own version of the Stephen King short story written after the fabulously macabre author wondered aloud how long a man could survive eating himself.

While taking on tech giants in the courtroom, HD Media has added to its reporting ranks at both of its daily newspapers, and both dailies have produced significant, award-winning journalism, as have our weeklies. But myriad challenges remain. We are rebuilding our staffs but are behind where we were when the business was at its peak more than two decades ago.

Our hope is that, as we build a new business model and make our case about the tilting of the digital advertising field in the direction of two companies, we will regain our former strength and emerge better than before. We are working toward this objective each day. But change won’t come with a snap of the fingers. Transformation takes time.

Among the many things life in the news business teaches is that some people don’t give a damn about facts. They want to be heard but never to hear. They remind me of a friend’s borrowed remark about losing arguments with his ex-wife: I thought I was right once, but I was wrong.

These points aren’t made to such people but rather to those genuinely seeking understanding. To the latter group, the message is that we are fighting the good fight, and we need and value your support. Those belonging to the former group are free to continue thrashing in the murky water of their own thoughts.

Lee Wolverton is the vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media. He can be reached at 304-348-4802 or lwolverton@hdmediallc


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