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Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009 | If judged from the size of its printed edition, The San Diego Union-Tribune is about half the paper it used to be.

The last Sunday newspaper in January 2006 was a whopping 288 pages. Three years later, subscribers only had to lug a 118-page bundle into their homes on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009. And for the week of Jan. 24-30, the total number of pages in the printed editions of the Union-Tribune fell from 840 in 2006 to 424 in 2009.

Not just pages have disappeared. During the last week of January 2006, readers could find as many as 19 locally written, bylined news stories in the printed Union-Tribune each day. Now, as the paper devotes less space to local news — and has fewer journalists to report, edit and photograph it — the norm has fallen to around nine to 12 stories a day.

What’s next? While every major American city still has a daily newspaper, that might not be true for much longer as the industry continues to face an unprecedented breakdown highlighted by bankruptcies and the threat of closing at a handful of major newspapers.

In a flurry of columns and blogs, industry observers are discussing a variety of options to help newspapers survive. Among other things, they say, newspapers could eliminate the printed edition — which is expensive to produce and distribute — one or more days a week or even go further and only publish news online. Others, meanwhile, have called for newspapers to become nonprofits that live off the generosity of benefactors.

A Union-Tribune spokesman says the paper isn’t talking about eliminating daily print editions. Nor, he said, is the paper considering whether to abandon print entirely or become a nonprofit.

But at least one pundit contends that struggling metropolitan newspapers like the Union-Tribune are only postponing the inevitable: an online-only future without ink, dead trees and home delivery first thing in the morning.

“They are following the same playbook as in the past,” said Mark Potts, a newspaper consultant and blogger. “They don’t realize the ground is disappearing beneath them.”

Exactly how much news coverage has vanished compared to the past? To determine the extent of the Union-Tribune’s decline in print, voiceofsandiego.org compared the newspapers from Jan. 24-30 in 2006 to the same week in 2009. In 2006, the local news in late January featured, among other things, a fatal airplane crash at McClellan-Palomar Airport, the collapse of an 18-ton freeway sign onto Interstate 805, and the Buick Invitational golf tournament at Torrey Pines.

It was a good week for the Union-Tribune, which was enjoying the last days of the real estate boom’s advertising bonanza and running special sections devoted to the golf tournament.

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006, for example, the Union-Tribune boasted seven sections and 68 pages. By contrast, the Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009, paper had five sections and 36 pages. On those Tuesdays, the local B section fell from eight pages in 2006 to six in 2009. And the number of locally written news stories with bylines — not including columns and obituaries — dipped from 11 to seven.

Since 2006, the Union-Tribune has eliminated a long list of features, including the weekly television listings section, the stand-alone book section, the bulk of the stock listings, the weekly Mini Page for children and the weekly insert of personal finance stories from the Wall Street Journal.

Also missing: the weekly personal technology section, a weekly humor column by syndicated writer Gene Weingarten, a variety of features about homes and information about funerals once provided in free obituary listings. Another victim is the number of pages devoted to editorials, columns and letters to the editor.

On the other hand, the Union-Tribune has added local news sections devoted to specific regions. In the central region of the county, for example, the Our San Diego section — featuring news, sports and opinion articles — appears on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Zoned sections like Our San Diego allow the paper to sell ads at lower cost to advertisers who only want to reach specific parts of the county.

Severe cutbacks aren’t unusual in the newspaper industry, which is facing both shrinking readership and a sharp decline in advertising.

During the first six months of 2008, newspaper advertising nationwide slumped by 14 percent and classified advertising fell by a whopping 26 percent. And that, of course, was before last fall’s economic collapse.

Less revenue, in turn, led to layoffs of everyone from reporters, editors and photographers to advertising representatives and printing press operators.

Declines in profits have also made it more difficult for newspaper companies to pay off debt. As a result, the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis recently filed for bankruptcy.

Not surprisingly, the comparison of Union-Tribunes from 2006 and 2009 reflects a significant decline in ads devoted to real estate and automobiles.

In 2006, for example, the Union-Tribune published a 10-page automobile section and devoted 30 pages to homes coverage on Sunday, Jan. 29. Three years later, on Jan. 25, the newspaper’s home section was only six pages, and just a handful of auto ads appeared in the classified section.

“You’re talking about giant reductions in advertising volume,” said Alan Mutter, a media analyst and former newspaper executive. “The fact is that [newspapers] cannot cut costs fast enough to stay ahead owing to the inescapable costs of newsprint, (printing) press leases, rent and desks.”

The true state of the Union-Tribune’s financial condition isn’t known. The newspaper is owned by The Copley Press, a privately held company that doesn’t release internal financial details.

But it’s clear that the company is facing rocky times. Copley Press is trying to sell both the Union-Tribune and the other newspaper it owns, the tiny Borrego Sun.

In addition, Copley sold its Midwest newspapers in 2007 for $380 million and closed its Washington D.C. bureau last year.

The company has also laid off or bought out dozens of workers, frozen its pension plan, instituted unpaid furloughs and pay cuts, and eliminated 401(k) matching contributions. Employees are also paying more for health benefits.

The paper has not publicly announced whether it continues to make a profit, although it’s possible that it’s still making money. While the newspaper industry’s decline has cut profit margins, some papers continue to be in the black, just not as much as before.

For example, Lee Enterprises, owner of the North County Times, reported a 20 percent operating profit margin for 2008 before some costs were taken into account. Still, the company faces bankruptcy because its cash flow isn’t enough to repay its debts.

One of the most commonly discussed options in the newspaper industry is the elimination of one or more daily printed editions. A paper could, say, only publish on Sundays and Tuesdays through Saturdays, avoiding the expenses of newsprint and delivery, among other things.

Mutter said it is indeed possible that newspapers could save money by not printing the paper on days when ads — and pages — are few. Those days include Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays.

“If you can’t think of any way to turn those papers into a break-even or profitable venture, and you’re continually hemorrhaging money and it’s putting the health of the business at risk, you could do it,” he said, although he’s skeptical of the idea.

At the Union-Tribune, “we are not considering eliminating days of the week for print at this time. … ” said spokesman Drew Schlosberg in a written response to questions. “These are difficult times, and we’ve had to make some painful decisions, but the focus is on emerging stronger and better positioned to serve our readers and advertisers.”

Another option would be to eliminate home delivery several days a week in favor of online coverage and printed issues sold on newsstands. The two daily newspapers in Detroit have announced such plans, but industry observers are skeptical that they’re serious, and it’s not clear whether such a move would alienate readers.

The Union-Tribune could also go online only. This would be a drastic option considering that newspapers make only about 10 percent of their revenue through online ads.

For now, Schlosberg said, the Union-Tribune is standing by its print edition.

One well-known U.S. newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, has announced plans to abandon its daily printed edition. The Monitor’s situation is unique, however, since it is nonprofit and partially subsidized by the Christian Science church.

Like other newspapers, the Union-Tribune posts stories on its website and provides other content. But it has not adopted a “web-first” policy for all news content. The full paper, for example, is not posted online until each morning at 2 a.m.

“Every newspaper is spending 90 percent of its time worrying about print product and 10 percent on the online product. The future is different than that,” said Potts, the newspaper consultant and blogger.

By going online-only, he said, a newspaper could avoid the huge cost of printing and distributing the daily paper. “At some point you need to realize the business you’re in is not printing presses.”

But former newspaper executive Mutter estimates that the Los Angeles Times, as an example, would have to cut its newsroom staff in half in order to survive and make a 20 percent profit — a typical profit margin for newspapers just a few years ago — only on online advertising proceeds. “It could be done, but the (newspaper) would be a completely different beast than what you see today.”

On Friday: Randy Dotinga takes questions about The San Diego Union-Tribune at Cafe San Diego and provides details about expected Union-Tribune layoffs, the Copley Press corporate jet and the buzz over a rumored potential buyer.

Disclosure: Dotinga, a freelance writer and voiceofsandiego.org contributor, also writes for The Christian Science Monitor and the North County Times, which are mentioned in this article.

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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