Mindich questions future of newspapers

Says readers and advertisers won’t pay for it

Stephen Mindich, who shut down the Boston Phoenix earlier this year, sounded like the Grim Reaper on Tuesday at a panel discussion on the future of newspapers.

Mindich said quality newspaper journalism is nearly impossible to produce today because readers won’t pay for it and advertisers are no longer willing to subsidize it because there are cheaper ways to reach their target audiences.

The news casualties are not hard to find. Mindich said he had to close the weekly Phoenix because it became too costly for him to pay the salaries of high quality journalists. He noted New York magazine, which won magazine of the year honors this year from the American Society of Magazine Editors, just decided to start publishing every other week instead of every week and invest the savings in its website. He said his sources tell him that Aaron Kushner’s heavy investments in the Orange County Register and other publications are not paying off, despite Kushner’s claims to the contrary.

“They are having a horrible time,” Mindich said of Kushner’s company, Freedom Communications Inc. of Irvine, CA. “They are losing millions and millions of dollars.”

Joe Sciacca, the editor of the Boston Herald, sounded a much more optimistic tone at the event, which was hosted by the Mintz Levin law firm. Sciacca acknowledged it’s a challenging time for newspapers, but said the future is not all gloom and doom. He said the tabloid’s online radio station now averages 135,000 listeners a month who typically spend 19.5 minutes listening. His staff may be shrinking and being asked to do a lot more than write news stories (they also shoot video and engage in social media), but Sciacca said news reported and edited by professionals remains in high demand by readers. “I think that model works,” he said.

Mindich insisted that model is broken. “It all comes down to who is going to pay for it,” he said.

Thomas Fiedler, the dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and the third member of the panel, said journalism is rapidly changing. Citing the Pew Research Center, he said the number of full-time journalists working at newspapers in the United States is down 30 percent since 2000 and there are fewer than 40,000 overall, the lowest level since 1978. He said TV news is not immune to the negative trends, as stations steer their coverage non-news events like weather and traffic and lose young viewers who are unwilling to watch news at appointed times.

Fiedler said enrollment in journalism courses at BU hasn’t fallen. “We haven’t seen a downturn yet but, as we say, flat is the new up,” he said. He said the fields of study that are growing at the College of Communication are public relations and advertising.

The audience at Mintz Levin included several prominent members of the local media. Pat Purcell, the publisher of the Herald, said he has had to shrink costs as his revenues have declined, farming out the printing and delivery of the Herald to the Boston Globe and moving out of a 270,000-square-foot facility into office space in the Seaport area. “Somehow or another, we’ve been able to stay profitable through this whole period,” he said.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Wendy Schwartz, who handles on-air promotions and fundraising for WBUR, said the public radio station has found success by embracing the diversity of the news environment, offering radio, video, and web content.

Bill Fine, the president of WCVB-TV (Ch. 5), hit back at the notion that local TV stations are hurting. He said Channel 5 has expanded its news staff and its news coverage in part by moving away from high-cost anchors. He acknowledged fewer and fewer viewers are tuning in to watch news on TV at an appointed time, but he said the station is migrating successfully to the web and on to mobile devices. He also said Channel 5 alone is worth more than the combined amount that Red Sox owner John Henry paid for the Boston Globe ($70 million) and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post ($250 million).