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End of newspapers is closer than you think

The age of the large, metro newspaper as a common news source is drawing to an end.
Photo courtesy of Alex Barth
The age of the large, metro newspaper as a common news source is drawing to an end.

Newspapers face a perfect storm of trouble: rising newsprint prices and transportation costs, coupled with declining readership and a shrinking ad base.

Though newspaper companies are working hard to increase their digital presence, they still get anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent of their revenues from the struggling print editions.

But at some point, the expense and decreasing relevance of day-old ink on paper will force newspaper companies to severely curtail or even shut down their print editions.

And that day might come sooner than you think — perhaps within five years, and very likely within 10.

Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, is a good proxy for the industry. According to a recent item in the Gannett Blog, readers are dropping their Gannett papers at a frightening rate.

Overall, Gannett newspapers lost 27 percent of their subscribers in the last decade. The drop occurred in large markets like Phoenix and Indianapolis; medium-sized markets like Des Moines and Rochester, N.Y.; and small markets like Marshfield, Wis.

But that 27 percent drop hides an even uglier truth: Circulation held reasonably steady through the first half of the decade, then began falling dramatically after 2005.

Meanwhile, the newspaper industry has lost more than half its ad revenue since 2005 and the typical newspaper has slashed anywhere from one-third to one-half of its news employees.

Fewer readers, fewer dollars and fewer newspeople generating less news coverage. That’s not a recipe for success in either the long or the short term.

Star Tribune, Pioneer Press
I actually believe that the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press will last longer than newspapers in other markets. Readers here are loyal and both papers seem to have steadied themselves after the shocks of recent years. But even Nancy Barnes, the editor of the Star Tribune, told a professional group this month that the Strib’s weekday print editions might not be around much more than five years.

When print — and its outsized revenue stream — dies, then newspapers will be forced into even more severe staff cutbacks. A handful of professional editors will oversee Web content from poorly paid freelance writers and photographers, bargain-basement “content farm” news services and unpaid community members.

Newspapers will make increased use of computer programs that generate simple news, business  and sports stories from statistics and factual data — no human writing required.

They’ll fill their websites with sensational, titillating — and cheap — photo galleries designed to boost page views. Again, Gannett has pioneered this with the Metromix feature found on many of its properties’ websites — for example, this 54-photo gallery of Indianapolis Colts cheerleader tryouts.

When print newspapers die, their online brands will suffer, too. Right now, newspaper websites get great traffic — but still don’t bring in a lot of revenue. When their organizations lose that lucrative print revenue stream and cut back on news personnel and quality content, their websites won’t be as compelling as they are now. Traffic will drop as people find fewer reasons to visit.

Smaller weekly and community newspapers will last longer in print. Reader expectations are different and they’re already on a less-demanding publication schedule. And the handful of national papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will continue to be available in print — at a very hefty price for those who still want the paper edition.

But the age of the large, metro newspaper as a common news source for a majority of residents is drawing to an end — and that end might come more quickly than any of us could have imagined just five years ago.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by craig furguson on 09/26/2011 - 07:18 am.

    OK, you proved your point. I went straight for the Colts cheerleading photos. So much more interesting that economic news lately : )

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/26/2011 - 07:21 am.

    A fascinating issue. I question whether newspapers can survive without print. To do that, you have to project our experience of newspapers, as a bundle of often unrelated information, updated every 24 hours, and delivered at our front door every morning into cyberspace where none of those assumptions I just made, apply. And actually we are seeing this played out now. Websites are acquiring other websites, as if the website itself had value, and finding that the value is in the content not the logo.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/26/2011 - 09:06 am.

    During a recent visit to a Rainbow store, I overheard two PPress reps trying to sell a Wed-Sunday subscription, leading me to conclude that my Monday and Tuesday editions aren’t long for this world. Then again, since I don’t read the sports section, they effectively disappeared some time ago.

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 09/26/2011 - 09:09 am.

    And closer to home, Craig — I should have realized that KARE 11, another Gannett property, would also have photo galleries of Vikings cheerleader tryouts. They’ve got 3 or 4 of them:

  5. Submitted by James Walsh on 09/26/2011 - 09:14 am.

    Well, shoot, John… I may as well just quit now.

    As you noted above, when the newspapers die, the web sites will get worse — not better. Everyone who says they get their news on the Web, get ready for much less if these predictions of doomr from the oracles of cyberspace come true.

    Maybe I can go into carpentry.

  6. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 09/26/2011 - 10:07 am.

    No weekday Strib within five years? At last, Strib managers have come up with a plan that sounds do-able!

  7. Submitted by Ken Paulman on 09/26/2011 - 10:13 am.

    @James – I’m guessing they were selling Wednesday AND Sunday, not Wednesday through Sunday. Grocery store inserts typically go out on Wednesdays, and Sunday is the biggest day for other ad inserts. Lots of newspapers offer that deal to subscribers to maximize circulation on those days.

  8. Submitted by Dodd Demas on 09/26/2011 - 10:16 am.

    @Jim W. I’d recommend against carpentry. The only business doing worse than print journalism these days is construction. On the other hand, carpentry will eventually come back as things break down and roofs begin to leak.

    Regardless, the prospect of an even less informed public is so depressing that I hardly know what to say.

    Maybe there should be web site devoted to cheerleader tryout photogalleries from across the country. Just sayin’.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/26/2011 - 10:21 am.

    The competitive advantage, I believe, that newspapers have over online is in weekend ads. The Sunday morning paper simply does a far better job in pushing out ads than online advertising. And something a lot of people seem to overlook is that online ads are easily and routinely blocked. You can spend all the money you want on ads, if no one sees them, they are worthless. At the very least, when you buy a newspaper, daily or weekend, it invariably comes with the ads.

  10. Submitted by Marta Fahrenz on 09/26/2011 - 11:23 am.

    This is a hopelessly depressing thought. The scenario describes the death of journalism as an art and a science without standards or ethics, much less critically thoughtful and interesting and competent writing. Journalism schools will devolve into marketing farms. Is this what we have to look forward to? What a wasteland.

  11. Submitted by Don Frey on 09/26/2011 - 11:32 am.

    For those of us of a “certain age”, the prospect of not having a daily newspaper to go with our morning coffee is a truly depressing thought. We already suffer from the inanity of 24-hour cable news channels on television, which think all news can be reported accurately and in-depth with 30-second sound bites, and then repeated ad nauseum. Look what this type of thinking has done to our political process over the past 10-20 years. While I know Gannett owns other types of media, I would hazard to say that most of their newspapers subscribe to the same type of journalism methodology, namely the McPaper style of USA Today. Certainly the ones I have read seem that way. I believe that the very large daily newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc.) will survive because they still deliver in-depth reporting of important content. Maybe their writers will become the newer version of what the news services (AP, UPI, Scripps-Howard, Reuters, etc.)used to provide.

  12. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/26/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    “Regardless, the prospect of an even less informed public is so depressing that I hardly know what to say. ”

    I don’t think the public gets much information from newspapers, or TV and radio for that matter. As Mark Twain quipped “If you don’t read a newspaper you are uninformed. If you DO read a newspaper, you are misinformed.”

    The end of newspapers may beneficial. It will eliminate the illusion of independent information. News media project the idea that they cover all points of view, but more accurately they all cover a couple different narratives from the same point of view.

    The result of killing this model of independent journalism may well create a greater demand for more information as part of a wider variety of narratives. To be well-informed will require something other than being able to repeat the talking points reported in the news.

  13. Submitted by greg copeland on 09/26/2011 - 12:18 pm.

    What will the Radio and Television station’s news departments do without newspapers?

    Radio and TV Stations both rip and read much of ‘their’ local newscasts directly from the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, and rarely give any attribution to these print hard news sources.

    Additionally many of local television stations build many feature reports around story ideas right out of newspaper headlines.

    Will the very limited local news, other than shootings and house fires, on metro -television news shows disappear with the print reporters who gether and write much of the news for these high paid electronic news readers?

  14. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/26/2011 - 12:53 pm.

    @Ken: That could be, but I hung around to listen to the pitch and it sure sounded like Wed-Sunday to me.

    I tried to find out at the PPress site, but couldn’t even locate a link for new subscriptions.

  15. Submitted by Lee Jones on 09/26/2011 - 01:37 pm.

    I worked in London for several years on a variety of print publications (trades mainly, which are much healthier than consumer dailies) but the problem for publications is mainly the skew of online/print in terms of effort and reward.

    I used to spend 75% of my time writing for online. If we got a story, it went up. It had to because if we didn’t get it up early enough, we’d be pipped to the post by a rival. Online is instantaneous and that’s great for readers, but it’s hard work for hacks.

    So the rest of my time was spent rushing together a print edition from whatever scraps weren’t used in the week’s online output. That meant PR had a lot of freedom to do what it wanted, purely because we needed help. Essentially the print edition was a poor relation to the hard-hitting, online news output.

    The trouble was, 75% of our income came from print ads, which were becoming cheaper each month as the economy dropped. We were constantly pressured by sales and our publisher to do more for print, more pages, more quality, more subjects, to help sell space. Online brought in very little reward, even when we doubled our click-throughs, doubled the size of the site and ramped up daily news output.

    On top of all that, we lost two staff members of a team of nine and were told they were never going to be replaced, the same month we were asked to double the daily online output.

    How can you continue to run a business where 75% of constantly-increasing effort gives 25% of a dwindling reward? I know some people who work for Gannett out of state and they are all looking to jump ship very soon.

  16. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/26/2011 - 03:22 pm.

    This is all very interesting, and very depressing.

    Lee (#15) certainly seems on-point as a participant. I know some people in the newspaper business in another state. One very good writer got out a few years ago specifically because of what Lee is talking about – demands kept increasing while revenue decreased, which meant less money for even on-staff writers, and when it came time to negotiate a new contract… Well, quite a few senior writers and editors were offered buyouts, and some of them could see the handwriting on the wall, so they took the money and ran.

    As a news reader, I’m not at all thrilled about the impending departure of the daily paper. I read several online sites, as well, but none are as widely-ranging as even the ‘Strib, which is not the best metro daily I’ve ever run across. Hopping from one website to another doesn’t necessarily take lots of extra time, but it IS inconvenient, and because we all self-censor to some degree, relying on web content narrows my view to some extent.

    As for ad revenue, it’s obviously a conundrum for the organizations involved. I get the ‘Strib 7 days a week, but most of the coupons on Wednesday and Sunday are for grocery products I don’t buy, or at least don’t buy any more, and I try not to be too much a part of the “consumer culture,” so I haven’t looked at a Sunday ad supplement in years.

    I try to buy and use software on the computer, including my browser, that’s not especially ad-friendly. If there are enough pop-ups or other particularly annoying kinds of ads, I simply stop visiting that site and go elsewhere. If I were 35 years younger, no ad manager would want to hear that, but at 67, I’m not the target demographic for most ad campaigns (hearing aids excepted) anyway, so I guess they’ll keep cranking ‘em out, even if I never see them.

  17. Submitted by Hal Davis on 09/26/2011 - 07:44 pm.

    Echoing Don Frey (#11) re this:

    ==According to a recent item in the Gannett Blog, readers are dropping their Gannett papers at a frightening rate==

    That may be because of the quality of their Gannett papers.

    I find it fascinating that Reinan writes that newspaper companies “get anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent of their revenues from the struggling print editions” and also writes, “When print — and its outsized revenue stream — dies…” and “When their organizations lose that lucrative print revenue stream and cut back on news personnel and quality content, their websites won’t be as compelling as they are now.”

    Why would something with an “outsized revenue stream,” a “lucrative print revenue stream,” kill it?

  18. Submitted by James Blum on 09/28/2011 - 05:18 pm.

    I get such a kick out of reading stories like this one, about how the internet as a disintermediation entity will kill “life as we know it.” It definitely will kill some industries as we know them (one I used to work in, leisure travel, is pretty much already gone in its bricks-and-mortar form). But the whole idea that these industries won’t be REPLACED by something arguably better (more efficient, faster, perhaps more comprehensive) is ridiculous. Take the record store, for example. As a kid, I could go to Musicland (remember them?) and choose among perhaps 5-10,000 albums and singles. Today, I can buy any one of a million on iTunes, Amazon, etc. at my convenience (e.g., at 2am, on a holiday, in a snowstorm). Same with leisure travel – I don’t have to wait for the AmEx travel office to open, I can arrange a vacation to Bora Bora at my convenience, on my terms, seeing the whole range of offerings, not just those presented to me by a travel agent looking for commissions.

    And don’t get me started on TV, which I cut the cord on earlier this year. I now can choose when and where I want to see shows, which has made me more selective about television – I view much less now than I ever did, and what I watch is (IMHO) of much higher quality. I don’t have to watch “what’s on.”

    Yes, newspapers as we know them are on their way out. Sorry, print journalists – your job is going the way of the secretary, travel agent, record-store dude, etc. But to think that something else – likely better – won’t replace newspapers is to deny history.

  19. Submitted by John Reinan on 09/28/2011 - 09:01 pm.

    That’s a great, perceptive comment, James. Your faith that *something* will bubble up to replace newspapers is probably well-founded. But that something has not bubbled up yet. If you figure out what it is, let me know so I can put some money into it.

  20. Submitted by James Blum on 09/29/2011 - 04:50 pm.

    John, thanks. I don’t know what will replace newspapers, but as you know, a news editor is a curator – “here, go chase this story; let’s take that one direct from the wires; let’s add a local angle to that national story,” etc. Perhaps one thing that may happen (or, is already happening) is the disaggregation of content creation and content curation. One possible direction is the rise of a different class of content creators – paid HuffPos, if you will. I could see a scenario in which the Strib actually employs more editors than reporters; the reporters would be “spun off” to a content creation entity that could provide content tailored to specific audiences. So the same story about, say, the Mayo Clinic may be sold to the Strib, Forbes, Phoenix magazine, etc. Publishers will have to get over their fascination with exclusivity and understand curation vs. creation, but they might if they are forced to. And, let’s face it, there isn’t much overlap in the examples I’ve listed above.

    On a related note, I’ve never understood that need to own vs. rent stories. The useful life of most newspaper stories is about 36 hours and falling – why own it? Just rent it.

  21. Submitted by Sally Rolczynski on 11/04/2011 - 02:48 pm.

    Just read this article, and I must say you are forgetting that ALL traditional media is in trouble.

    Commercial radio (sirius,phone, itunes), broadcast tv (cable, internet), cable (internet), yellow pages (already dead), etc. are all doomed. This is yet another article from a bitter ex-strib employee. Everyone I know looks at the Strib each day either in print or digital.

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