- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lean times dominate the media landscape as newspapers around the nation tighten their belts and trudge forward.

Even Brenda Starr has been furloughed after 69 years on the job. The scarlet-lipped comic heroine was sent packing from her longtime job as gutsy gal reporter in Saturday’s strip.

“I can’t afford to pay you anymore,” said her gruff publisher B. Babbitt Bottomline.

Indeed, fat cat news mongers are a thing of the past, and an underlying sense of tragedy lingers among affected journalists.

On Friday, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger notified his staff - and those at the Boston Globe and other Times’ properties - that they would have to endure a 5 percent pay cut and 10 furlough days as the legendary “Gray Lady” deals with an 18 percent drop in advertising revenue.

The paper also laid off 100 business-side employees and expects to ax an additional 70 people from its news side

“We are saying goodbye to many of our close colleagues. We are lowering salaries through the end of this year for all remaining nonunion employees and, in exchange, providing additional time off,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “The environment we are in is the toughest we have seen in our years in business.”

The Washington Post offered buyouts to both business and editorial employees on Thursday - the fourth in a series of moves to winnow down the staff. In 2008, the paper was down $198 million in operating costs and expects more losses this year - “embarrassing,” according to Chief Executive Officer Donald Graham.

Such bad tidings are common across the newspaper industry, where advertising revenue dropped from $49 billion in 2006 to $38 billion last year - a decline of 23 percent, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). Newspaper stocks lost 83 percent of their value in 2008.

Last week alone, the Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Boston Herald, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Buffalo News also announced substantial layoffs and pay cuts.

The 101-year-old Christian Science Monitor offered its last print edition Friday, and now - like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other newspapers - has gone completely online as a cost-cutting measure.

“No longer inked on wood pulp, no longer trucked from printing plants to your mailbox, no longer published only five days a week, the daily Monitor is now a dynamic online newspaper on all days,” editor John Yemma told his readers optimistically. “We are wearing new clothes, but we remain your Christian Science Monitor.”

At least they are still publishing; the Rocky Mountain News ended its press run four weeks ago.

Bankruptcies also have been filed recently by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis; Philadelphia Newspapers, which owns both that city’s Inquirer and its Daily News; and the Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and six other dailies.

Suggestions to remedy the situation are many - from monetizing online and “niche” content to federal bailouts, public donation campaigns and inventive strategic alliances and exchanges between media partners. Newspaper executives are also struggling with a troublesome statistic: of that $38 billion in revenue remaining, just $3 billion came from online sources, according to the PEJ.

“No one source is a likely magic bullet,” the group said in its “2009 State of the News Media Report.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, introduced the “Newspaper Revitalization Act,” a bill that would allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations with attendant tax breaks - though the charitable tax status would prevent the endorsement of political candidates.

The proposal has been criticized by journalists and analysts alike, with most claiming it would compromise both the First Amendment and press independence.

Yet for all the hair-raising revelations, one new study emerged with some helpful news. According to a three-month analysis of more than 2,000 blogs, the marketing researchers at J.D. Power and Associates revealed that 40 percent of bloggers said they would be willing to pay for their news rather than sample it for free online.

The blogging population could be as high as 346 million, according to estimates.

“We’re catching this conversation at its genesis,” said Janet Eden-Harris, who led the research. “It hasn’t quite hit mainstream, because the general public isn’t confronted with a true pay-for-news-or-lose-it decision.”

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