Newspaper Web Traffic Keeps Growing — But Not Fast Enough to Rescue Employees

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Newspaper sites saw viewership jump last quarter, but the Washington Post and the Guardian are the latest companies to offer layoffs or buyouts

Web traffic for newspapers keeps growing, but not fast enough for Washington Post staffers, who on Wednesday learned there would be yet another round of voluntary buyouts at the paper. 

The buyouts – up to 48 news staffers at the Post, according to the paper's ombudsman – are the latest in a new round of cuts at major newspapers as online traffic grows and overall unemployment numbers fall nationwide.

The average number of daily visitors to Washington Post's site jumped by more than 3 million, or nearly 15 percent, during the last quarter of 2011, according to a study released last week by the Newspaper Association of America.

The number of unique visitors over that period increased nearly 6 percent, while the total minutes visitors spent on the site rose by 14 percent.

But all those eyeballs are not translating into real money, or at least not at enough of a clip to cushion circulation losses and declining print advertising revenue. 

Also read: L.A. Times Rocked by More Turmoil: Top Editor Quits With Cuts Looming

Newspaper ad revenue in 2011 reached its lowest point since 1984, bottoming out at $24 billion. That figure is half of what the industry attracted at its height in 2004.

“The desperation continues,” Alan Mutter, a former top editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and an adjunct faculty member at the Berkeley School of Journalism, told TheWrap. “They thought [2011] would be a reasonably stable year and it wasn’t because even though advertising has recovered in magazines, radio and television, it never came back for newspapers.”

In the case of the Washington Post, the newspaper has not released earnings for the fourth quarter of last year, but its most recent public filing showed a paper still struggling with the migration of readers from print to web. 

Print advertising revenue at the Post fell 20 percent to $57.6 million, according to its November earnings report.

Overall,  the paper's print advertising revenue plunged 13 percent for the first nine months of last year.

Also read: Washington Post Editor Jumps Back to Wall Street Journal

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli positioned the buyouts as a necessary step toward making the paper "more efficient, agile and competitive." It marks the paper's  fifth round of buyouts since 2004, according to Poynter. 

In an email to staff, Brauchli said the paper's coverage would not be compromised, thanks in no small part to its success in growing the Post's digital operations.

"Our objective is a limited staff reduction that won’t affect the quality, ambition or authority of our journalism. We believe this is possible, given the changes in how we work and the great successes we have had building our digital readership lately," Brauchli wrote. 

Not everyone shared Brauchli's optimism. 

In the American Journal Review, the publication's editor Rem Rieder wrote, "Resources matter. You can't do more with less, no matter how often you say you can and will."

"So cut if you must. But spare us the bogus happy talk," he added.

The Post isn't the only news organ taking out the carving knife. Newspapers have laid off or bought out 563 employees over the first month of the year, according to Paper Cuts, an online site that tracks cuts in news rooms.

Among the newspapers that employed the hatchet recently are the New London, Conn. based "The Day" with 15 layoffs; Escondido, Calif. based North County Times with 34 layoffs; and "The Tampa Tribune" with 134 layoffs.

In the buyouts column, the Tribune Company announced last month that it will offer an undisclosed number of buyouts. The company, which is still looking to emerge from bankruptcy, did not rule out the possibility of future layoffs.

In December, more than ten New York Times staffers took buyouts.

Also read: New York Times Editor's Legacy Depends On Its Paywall

Indeed, the Post's latest wave of reductions came on the heels of news that the U.K. based Guardian News & Media has accepted 30 buyouts. 

A Guardian News & Media spokeswoman told TheWrap that the "voluntary redundancies" were re-opened in September and closed at the end of last year.

"Last year Guardian News & Media announced its digital first strategy and we made it clear that we would be restructuring some of our print products and processes, moving more resources into digital and making savings from the editorial budget," the spokeswoman said in a statement.

All of these layoffs and buyouts are a far cry from the dark days of 2008 and 2009, when the recession dealt a body blow to media companies that resulted in the loss of 15,993 jobs and 14,825 jobs respectively. After rebounding in 2010, however, it seems as though newsrooms have rediscovered their appetite for getting by with less. 

Some of that newfound enthusiasm may be spurred by the lack of digital dollars to support all those flesh and blood reporters.

Many newspapers have turned to paywalls to buttress that digital revenue stream, with everyone from the New York Times to the Minnesota Star-Tribune to the Dallas Morning-News jumping on the bandwagon.

“It actually was a really good idea, but it should have been done 15 to 20 years ago,” Mutter said. “I have often said failing to do so was the original sin.”

Declines in advertising revenue have more than outweighed increases in subscription revenue, even at supposed successes like the New York Times. In the Times’ latest earnings report, the company announced sagging profits and revenue despite its growing digital subscriber base.

In the case of The Post, which does not have a paywall, the paper maintains not only its own highly-trafficked website, but also that of Slate.com, which offers political and media commentary. Despite that suite of titles, online revenue at the company was down 14 percent to $23.3 million in the company's most recent quarter. 

“Just because readers are moving from print to digital (and mobile), why do we think they will suddenly pay more for our industry’s financial salvation?” The Post's former managing editor Raju Narisetti said at the Newsfoo conference last winter.

Narisetti left the paper late last month to become Wall Street Journal Digital Network managing editor.