Stop the irrational negativity: Newspapers are not dead

I really hate being in a position of defending the newspaper industry. It's much more fun, and in the big picture perhaps more productive, to kick it in the pants. But I have to call bullshit on the "Newspapers Are Dead" meme.

No, they're not. Neither is print. Schadenfreude and gravedancing do not advance a rational conversation about how journalism will work going forward, and irrational negativity will not help us invent the future.

Let's get some perspective. In spite of the worst economy since Roosevelt, many U.S. newspapers are still turning profits in the 15-20 percent range, and the U.S. newspaper industry is still turning around 50 billion dollars of gross revenue every year.

Several major newspaper companies are in big financial trouble because they borrowed heavily to finance acquisitions on an assumption that even greater profit margins (over 40 percent in many cases) were going to continue. But do not confuse a poor corporate finance decision with fundamental sustainability of the business.

I've been working exclusively on the online side of the news business since 1994, after many years in print, and I'm as much an online advocate as anybody. I've seen cycles of boom and bust and I know how to recognize crazy talk, and there's a lot of it going around right now.

I can't remember where, but I was reading a blog post the other day written by someone who had visited a local newspaper and was stunned -- stunned -- to discover that there's a lot of money in the local journalism business.

Yes, there is. A lot.

And if you want to understand why newspaper managers aren't impressed by ill-informed arguments that we ought to just quit printing and/or outsource all our ad sales to Google, that's why.

Big money.

Look, there's no question that a fundamental restructuring is taking place in a number of dimensions.

Part of that involves a consumer preference shift from print to digital. Part of that involves an explosion of sources and choices that knocks the local newspaper out of the nonlocal information business. Part of it involves product disintegration -- especially classifieds from news, but also news itself being ripped apart.

Those changes will present huge challenges and demand painful choices going forward, and both the print and digital product lines of local newspapers will have to adapt, along with all of the people who produce those products.

But that doesn't roll up to a "newspapers are dead" conclusion. There is tremendous demand for local media, both from the people we usually and falsely call "consumers," and the businesses that we often call "advertisers." The solutions that work to meet that demand will change. Some companies will fail to change and will die, and others will step in. We can be sure that the future won't be like the past, but that doesn't mean there is no future.

A lot of media punditry comes from people who have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. An exception is Alan Mutter, and I recommend these recent posts to inject some fact into the friction:

Why newspapers can't stop the presses
Print drives online ad sales at newspapers

When you read them, keep in mind that there is a lot of variation in actual performance among the more than 1,400 daily papers in the United States.


You nailed it, Steve. Some airlines going out of business doesn't mean that all airlines will disappear or public demand for airlines has shifted to another transportation form. Demand for local news and targeted advertising persist.

Steve, The argument that newspaper ad revenue would shrink to a tiny fraction of the print-generated revenue assumes that the print dollars would simply vanish in an online-only environment. The elimination of - say - the L.A. Times print edition would create an enormous information sea change in Southern California. If the Web edition were the only game in town, then many of the print-only eyeballs would migrate online with the ad dollars following. Print operations are anchors to a drowning industry that is desperately floundering for a life jacket.

For how many years did print circulations edge downward as advertising revenue grew? That's not sustainable. Now, print ad revenue declines generally exceed circulation declines -- and definitely do not correspond to the trend we're seeing in combined print/online audience (which is up). That's not sustainable either. Part of what we see today, once you throw the crappy global economy out of the list of factors, is a new level-setting of the value of our audiences to advertisers. We set it way too high when we controlled distribution. Now the market sets it for us. But if we can keep it far enough north of zero, ad supported media with audiences our size should still be good businesses, just not licenses to print money as in the past.

I agree that the death knell of newspapers is being sounded too early. Even though we don't have access to the details, the Inland Press Association's regular gathering of financial data shows that some smaller papers are still getting profits in the 20% range, a few of the 80 or so papers even hit the 30s, according to a reputable blog post ( source escapes me for the moment...). True, the very small papers, circ. under 5K, aren't doing as well, probably because the advertising base for hyperlocals is by definition small. Newspapers got into trouble in the same ways some homeowners have gotten into trouble by assuming that untethered growth and speculation would continue indefinitely, so they over-borrowed or over-invested in unsustainable projects. The herd may be thinned a bit, and going digital will be critical, but newspapers will be around for awhile, so long as the greed and stupidity stops.

Newspapers are not dead. This is a fact. (Most) Newspapers are profitable. That is a fact. Most newspapers are not operating in positions that are sustainable over the long term. That is a fact. Just like all the people on board an airplane in a nose-dive are alive and healthy, so are newspapers. What a lot people who are seen as "negative" are trying to do is simply get someone to pull up on the stick.

Agreed, newspapers are not dead yet. What seems to be missing from this discussion is reader choice. Maybe it is because we are all online that we forget that not everyone is not connected as we are. Readers choose the way they want to get their news. Today there is nothing stopping a reader from going online to read the New York Times rather than buy the print edition. We have to conclude that the readers who buy the newspaper do so because they prefer that platform. In all of the talk about online only we seem to forget that we need to meet the needs of our readers in the ways they want. Forcing readers online because it is more economical for publishers is no more reasonable than the days when we didn't provide online news because that was not our "business." If the NYT was to shut down its website would we go buy the paper to get NYT content or would we just jump to the Washpost? We are in a transition during which we need to manage multiple delivery system. We need to engage with readers in the ways that they want. Mark Hinojosa Director of New Media The Detroit News

Mark, readers have never, ever been as well served as they are now. But, yeah, as Steve says, it is continuing to change and, as you say, it has to be managed. There is a lot of talk about getting readers to pay for news. Good luck with that. My concern, instead, has been in finding ways for newspapers to help their advertisers reach worthwhile markets. Newspapers can't create the new media for their advertisers, but they can add value to the digital world. News adds value and attracts consumers, but newspapers aren't getting paid enough for bringing the consumers to the page with the ad on it. Can and should newspaper do more than tell stories? As a former journalist, it's not an easy question to ask, but I think the answer is yes.

I think that the ad question is a good one. We have done a terrible job of bringing value to our clients. But we need to do more than decorate a story online and then drop a banner on it. Even if I grow time spent-- it doesn't mean that my readers are interacting with my advertisers. I think we need to talk about how we can highlight products and services form our advertisers without infecting our journalism. let the flames begin.

I think the most important factor is the one that no one wants to talk about. It's not about changing revenue models or rearranging blocks on our web sites. If we want to capture the under 40 audience we have to change the way we talk to people. We have to change our voice and borrow liberally from the blog model. We have to change what we say and how we say it if we want to capture an audience that revolves around political blogs and TMZ. There are all kinds of valid discussions we should have about revenue models and news presentation, but none of that will matter if we can't capture these lost generations. Most of the discussions I see about newspapers start with the assumption that our content is perfect and our style is sacrosanct; it's just the price and the packaging that need to be tweaked. The Micropayment Fairy can wave a magic wand and give us the perfect model for milking revenue from our existing reader base tomorrow and we'll still be lost, until we find a way to capture those 28-38 readers.

The paper part of the newspaper is dead … Get over it. The only thing that will remain is going to be vanity presses like HP is proposing with their printing service [ ] We didn’t fight for the rights of the buggy whip makers either … Suck it up. Journalism however is definitely NOT DEAD. It has been democratized, popularized, localized, opened up, opened on and opened for a new business model. If you worked as an editor or for an editor, you are going to find that the average person hasn’t suddenly improved in spelling or grammar, logic or comprehension, ability to communicate or in layout skills. We just have to find you a new way to get news that you write out there; .PDF files on your servers being distributed via RSS files that the Post Office has on their server and that gives access to the latest content for $ would go a long way towards granting you a new lease on life. The RSS file can even contain the highlights and a little bit of text from the articles which are still on your servers. Actually, you can extract the words from your articles, remove duplicates, sort them, and let Google be able to include or eliminate an article from a search, present the little highlight snatch of text to let potential readers determine if they are interested and then the post office can: 1) let subscribers access the article OR 2) charge for access to the article. This last part, subscription fulfillment or piece-meal charging, would be done by the post office. Nobody has ever had a problem paying for a stamp or expected a letter to be delivered without a stamp. Once the “news” becomes the “olds”, say after a week for most articles, let Gooogle have at the original that you can store in a separate server. a) The transmission of the articles is almost free. b) The distribution of the articles is almost free. c) The access is cheap but NOT free and the post office sees to that and that helps them with with their business model. d) The post office send you a share of the money collected (and YOU KNOW HOW OFTEN AN ARTICLE IS FETCHED OFF OF YOUR SERVERS FROM A PARTICULAR IP ADDRESS.) There is a business model that would work, it would 1) let new gathering organizations gather news, 2) let readers read, 3) let the post office disseminate and collect payments and disburse funds.

I 100% agree with your posting... Newspapers are NOT dead, they are just due for a technological upgrade. Have a look at let me know your thoughts ;) i think we might be on to something! -P