Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ultimate Spider-Man and the Newspaper Industry: Could the Bugle Have Survived?

Over in the Ultimate Marvel universe, where J. Jonah Jameson is not the mayor of New York City, some former Daily Bugle employees are musing over the loss of their newspaper and the effect that the recession had on the newspaper industry.

Of course, the recession is not the primary reason for the Bugle being shut down. Instead it was Ultimatum: a "massive tidal wave [that] crashed down on the island of Manhattan, killing millions of people in the blink of an eye." With a large chunk of New York City now completely obliterated, including the Bugle building itself, it is quite difficult for Jameson and his crew to remain in business.

Supernatural disasters aside (boy, I bet Jameson wishes he had taken out a Supernatural Disaster Insurance policy), Jameson acknowledges that the recession would have forced the Bugle to close shop anyway. And he's probably right--the newspaper industry is not doing too well in the face of the latest crisis.

Take a look at the following graph from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which depicts quarterly newspaper print ad sales (via Techcrunch).

Reprinted from techcrunch.com

Indeed, ad expenditures have been on a fairly steady decline since 2006, and took yet another sharp turn in the final quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009.

These numbers do not look good. According to the NAA, total print advertising expenditures fell from about $8.4 billion in Q1 of 2008 to approximately $5.9 billion in Q1 of 2009. This represents a 29.7% decline in print revenues.

And this is just print. Online sales fell by an unprecedented 13.4% in Q1 of 2009, dropping from about $804 million to about $696 million. Total print and online newspaper ad expenditures fell from about $9.2 billion to about $6.6 billion--a 28.3% decline.

It is no wonder that Jameson and the Daily Bugle staff were worried. Many newspapers have been forced to either shut down production or institute massive cuts and layoffs due to the lost revenues and diminished readership. In February, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that it was cutting a significant amount of jobs following a 7% decline in circulation in the 6 months leading up to September 2008. Denver's Rocky Mountain News also was forced to close.

In April, the New York Times company announced an 18.6% revenue loss to $609 million from $747.9 million and a debt of $1.3 billion. The Tribune Company (Chicago), the Los Angeles Times, and the Baltimore Sun all filed for bankruptcy in December of 2008.

Would there have been much hope for the Bugle if Ultimatum never had occurred? Likely not. Although the Bugle had a website, it seems as though the company used much of its operating costs on print production. As far as I am aware, the Bugle, in particular, seemed wary of establishing a prominent online presence, considering itself to be a traditional newspaper. In addition, with Jameson at the helm, rather than focusing on expanding to new media and acquiring new sources of revenue, the Bugle frequently relied on cheap journalism and scare tactics (particularly involving Spider-Man) to earn a buck. This only works so much in the face of a recession.

Sure enough, however, the Bugle could have tried several things. They could have converted to a "web-first" organization, pouring more resources into online media rather than print. Compared to last year, there was about a 7% drop in newspaper circulation, while web site viewership increased about 10.5% in Q1. Although ad revenues are dropping even online, they were pretty strong in 2006, while print ad revenues were declining. The Bugle could have taken advantage of some creative forms of advertising, including deals with mobile phone companies, social media companies (Facebook, Twitter), etc. Perhaps, as Jameson is realizing now, they might have even sold more newspapers if he were to cease portraying Spider-Man as a menace. People like reading about heroes.

I open the floor to the readers. Is there anything the Daily Bugle could have done to keep in business? What measures could it have taken to help its survival?


Anonymous said...

Well, Jameson could have campaigned for the importance of government assistance for the news industry (which would have been easier if he'd been mayor). It wouldn't have helped the fundamental problem, but if one believes that newspapers are being hit harder by recession than they are by the changes brought by 'new media', then the money from some sort of bailout could float the Bugle until it was able to pick up a profit again after the recession.

Then again, with a tidal wave hitting NY, it'd be awful hard to make the case that the newspaper industry is so important as to need assistance in times where money would be going towards disaster relief.

Matt D said...

It's difficult to see how The Bugle could've saved itself in the face of the new media revolution. You can waterproof your offices to withstand a tidal wave, but you can't do much to stop the forward march of technological innovation. This isn't to say that new media is necessarily better than old media... I still enjoy reading the newspaper during lunch, since eating and using your laptop at the same time can get messy fast. But people want to get their news from the internet now, and I can't blame them: why pay for something on paper when you can get a more up-to-date version on your computer screen?

This is a major paradigm shift, and I don't think there's a single superhero who could save the Bugle, unless this superhero was willing to destroy every data center on the planet or wipe out all our electronics with a swift and devastating electromagnetic pulse wave. The bottom line is that people are becoming accustomed to getting their news for free, much like people became accustomed to getting music for free after the Napster revolution. If the New York Times suddenly decided to charge money for access to its website, people would just head elsewhere. We can't go back.

The question now is how news organizations can make any money at all. I think they're still trying to figure that out. There should be money to be made from selling ad space on news websites, but this may not be enough.

What's most troubling about the new media revolution is what happens after the old institutions crumble. Once the newspapers go down, who are we supposed to trust with our news? Bloggers? Citizen journalists? We might be all giddy with excitement reading twitter feeds about the Iranian protests, but what about all the misinformation? Without large organizations filtering the info, all you're left with is chaotic news vigilantism. And vigilantism usually has unfortunate side effects (unless you're a superhero, and who's gonna be the superhero of news?).

Of course, all is not lost. Society has a way of reorganizing itself after these shifts... either our news structure will adapt to this radical change, or new media will improve its self-policing capabilities, much like Wikipedia did after debuting as a kind of lawless information utopia. This is especially likely in the case of social media, which has increasingly shown itself to be an adaptive and highly unpredictable force on the internet. I have a feeling that we're going to see a strange evolution taking place, one which will be hard to foresee but may become obvious in hindsight.

Anonymous said...

What I've been seeing while watching the unfolding of the Iranian twitter stuff is that the blogosphere tends to self-police in a similar way to the legal system. The blogosphere is highly partisan usually, and it's basically the case that we get two sides arrayed against each other. Those sides will do their damnedest to discredit the other side, and that process (much like the institutional antagonism of the legal system) will draw arguments and counter-arguments out by the nature of the process, providing a read with all that they need to make informed decisions. With the ability to self-publish being rampant in countries like our own, I don't see a need for an industry to filter what's right and wrong. If they were perfect arbiters of the truth, then maybe, but they aren't (no one is). And they do a poor job at aggregating all points of view, because they either don't try, or when they try they water the points of view down so much that they become worthless. Let readers gather viewpoints on their own (it's easy and fast these days), and come to their own conclusions.

SevenDollarPen said...

The Bugle's model was largely based on big cover photos of Spider Man. As the stories themselves were mostly spin and/or fabrication, they were pretty much irrelevant. It all came down to the photo. But in a world where everyone has a camera and internet connection at all times, who needs to turn to a newspaper for those shots?

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