NEARLY three-quarters of U.S. newspaper executives responding to a recent survey said their ability to inform readers has diminished with their steadily shrinking staffs.
The survey conducted by the Associated Press Managing Editors illuminated the doubts and concerns hovering over newspapers as the industry reels from a slump that has been worsening since last fall.
The 20-question survey got responses from 351 editors and publishers. Although a few newspapers provided answers from more than one editor, the survey still offered an unusually large sampling.
APME surveys typically elicit a smattering of responses to very specific questions about a topic in the news. But this one clearly touched a nerve as it sought to find out how newspaper management is coping with a downturn that has wiped out $11.6 billion, or nearly one-fourth, of the industry's annual advertising revenue since 2005.
"These are the people out there on the front lines of this battle and they really don't know how it is going to turn out," said Bobbie Jo Buel, the APME's president and executive editor of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
Seventy-one percent of the survey participants said cutbacks have "somewhat affected" or "greatly affected" the quality of their newspapers' coverage. Just 20 percent said their newspapers' staff reductions had little or no effect.
The comments accompanying the responses were filled with resignation, frustration, anger, despair, confusion and even some gallows humor that reflected the depressed state of the U.S. economy as more people lose their homes because they can't afford their mortgages.
"Our newspaper's biggest revenue source today is foreclosure notices," wrote Clifford Buchan, editor of the Forest Lake Times, a free weekly newspaper in Minnesota. "We have uncertainty once that run ends, as it most surely will."
To cope with the hard times, 65 percent of the survey respondents said they have laid off workers since January 2008. Nearly 30 percent said they have lowered wages.
Total employment in the newspaper industry averaged 407,000 people during 2008, a 20 percent decline from 508,000 in 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Newspapers have eliminated thousands more jobs so far this year.
Now editors are worried they won't have the adequate resources and skills to keep newspapers relevant as more readers turn to the Internet for information.
Nearly 68 percent of the respondents cited staffing shortages as the chief impediment to change; more than 57 percent said they didn't have enough money to innovate. Thirty-one percent said their personnel didn't have the skills to change with the times.
"It's not worth complaining about having too few people because the staffing status quo of two years ago isn't coming back," wrote Jeff Gauger, executive editor of The Repository, a daily newspaper in Canton, Ohio, with a circulation of about 65,000.
Newspapers have been shrinking, largely because their audiences and advertisers have been defecting to the Web. The U.S. recession that began in December 2007 has accelerated the slide in ad revenue and may also be contributing to a circulation drop as more households try to save money.
Many editors seem to be having second thoughts about the industry's practice of giving away stories and photos on their Web sites. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents said they plan to charge for online content. About 20 percent said they will offer some coverage exclusively in their print editions to reward their paying customers.
With so much information readily available online for free, more newspapers are concentrating coverage on community issues unlikely to attract the attention of other media outlets. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents said they are devoting more space to "hyper-local" news while decreasing the pages devoted to national and international stories.
Despite the challenges facing newspapers, 72 percent of the survey's participants said they are staying in the industry because they believe in "the mission of journalism." Just 6 percent said they were sticking it out because the pay was too good to give up.
Fifty-nine percent of the respondents predicted their publications will find ways to be profitable. But nearly 17 percent said they're worried their newspapers will die.
While most newspapers seem to be trying different ways to engage readers and drum up revenue, 25 percent of the respondents said their publications are mostly "hunkering down" until the economy recovers.
"We're all in this together," wrote Steve Bagwell, managing editor of the News-Register, a newspaper in McMinnville, Ore. "All oars are pulling in the same direction."
To bolster staff morale, many survey respondents said they are going out of their way to praise outstanding work and occasionally serving free lunches or snacks.
Other editors are reminding their reporters and photographers that they are fortunate to still have their jobs after so many of their colleagues have been ushered out the door.
"Aren't we lucky to continue doing what we love while others are forced to leave the industry?" wrote Eric Petermann, managing editor of The Journal-Standard, a newspaper in Freeport, Ill., with a circulation of about 11,500. "This is gut-check time. Our `new reality' is a time of separation. Love what you are doing, and be the best, or find a job as a PR flack."