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More evidence of the looming death of newspapers

The modern news consumer has many choices, and often the key to engaging a reader or viewer is simply to be first with the story.
Photo courtesy of Alex Barth
The modern news consumer has many choices, and often the key to engaging a reader or viewer is simply to be first with the story.

A couple of months ago, I wrote that the end of newspapers is closer than you think. Since then, events have lent credence to that prediction.

Most notably, several newspaper companies have moved decisively toward a digital-first identity. Let me explain why that’s a big deal.

In the infancy of the Web — barely a decade ago — newspapers often held their scoops for the morning print edition. And TV stations held their best stuff for the 10 o’clock news.

Though the newspapers and TV stations had websites, they didn’t want to publish significant stories on the Web first, fearing that the competition could follow up with its own version during the same publishing or broadcast cycle. That line of thinking went out the window a few years ago. Now, media organizations almost always publish their news to the Web as soon as they can.

Many TV stations and newspapers still do hold out some exclusive content to give people an extra incentive to watch their broadcast or buy the print newspaper. But those are usually so-called “enterprise” stories involving significant reporting that can’t be easily repurposed by a competitor.

For the most part, there’s been a recognition of the importance of immediacy. The modern news consumer has many choices, and often the key to engaging a reader or viewer is simply to be first with the story, rather than offering the most insightful or the most complete version.

Now, several newspaper companies have gone all-in on that notion:

•    Booth Newspapers, which publishes eight newspapers in Michigan cities like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, announced last month that it’s adopting a digital-first strategy. Most of its newspapers will cut back home delivery of print editions from seven days a week to three. As further proof of its commitment to the digital world, the company is changing its name to MLive.

•    GateHouse Media, which owns nearly 500 newspapers — mostly small-town dailies, weeklies and shoppers — announced an acceleration of its digital efforts as part of “Project Apple.” Newspapers, the GateHouse CEO declared, are “a product declining in popularity and readership.”

•    The Roanoke (Va.) Times, owned by Landmark Media Enterprises, announced job cuts and a reorganization geared toward “building a newsroom that is oriented first toward delivering news online.” Said Editor Carole Tarrant in a memo to her staff: “We do not expect to see growth in our print advertising base. … We are pursuing growth where growth continues to reside — on the digital side of our company.”

•    Just last week, Pittsburgh got a new, digital-only afternoon newspaper. The Pittsburgh Press launched under the same name that died 18 years ago when the competing Post-Gazette bought and closed the Press.

•    New York Times journalist David Carr published a compelling look at the strategy of John Paton, CEO of MediaNews Group — the nation’s second-largest newspaper company and owner of the Pioneer Press. Wrote Carr: “[Paton] is absolutely convinced that if newspapers are to survive, they will all but have to set themselves on fire, eventually forsaking print and becoming digital news operations.”

Nobody loves print newspapers more than I do. I’ve been reading at least three newspapers a day since I was 7 years old, and there have been few thrills in my life to match the occasions when I’d walk into a coffee shop and see people reading a front-page story of mine.

But the growing body of evidence is overwhelming. Many of the people who run our nation’s newspapers have decided that the future of their print product is unsustainable.

I hope they’re wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Bruemmer on 11/21/2011 - 06:00 am.

    I’m a believer. My daughter was recently a part of a front page story in the Strib. Her picture appeared in the print edition, but not the online. The number of friends and colleagues that had see her picture was pretty interesting. My old fart, paper-subscribing friends all caught it, but that was it. And to that the comments about the Strib’s new online policy (“they want us to pay for content?”), and I’m glad not to be a newspaper publisher.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/21/2011 - 07:59 am.

    Sadly, I have to agree, though I’ll hold out as long as I can.

    Unlike a newspaper, which is a physical product I can hold in my hand, and which is relatively straightforward technologically, even in this age of computers, news on the web requires that several technological frameworks have to work flawlessly, and work flawlessly together, in order for me to get the same information.

    The electrical grid has to work as we’ve come to expect it to – reliably. The news organization’s website has to work as its owners want it to. My web connection to that website has to work as both producer and consumer want it to, whether it’s through a land line or wi-fi. Finally, my computer has to work as I’ve come to expect it to.

    With all that, I’m getting a product that remains, 30 years into the personal computer age, quite a bit harder to read than ink on a page of newsprint. Screen resolutions have improved marginally in the PC world over the past couple of decades, but that resolution still doesn’t come close to the sharpness of what the eye sees on a printed page.

    Still, I’m inclined to agree that speed seems to be of the essence in news coverage nowadays, and the sad degeneration of local TV news into the pursuit of trivia over the same past couple of decades simply enhances the appeal of the web as a source of genuine news.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 11/21/2011 - 08:48 am.

    I will file your prophecy regarding the demise of newspapers along with those from 40 and 50 years ago that predicted the end of movie theaters and the radio business.

  4. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 11/21/2011 - 09:08 am.

    When it comes to news, speed is less important to me than accuracy. There is a saying that a lie can run ten miles before the truth gets done tying its shoes. This is especially true now, when the owners of for-profit media seem to have decided that it’s cheaper and more profitable to provide sensational rumors than solid, evidence-based information. These owners also seem to have discovered that the less reliable information their customers have, the less they realize how the quality of news is declining, and how ignorant they are becoming as a result.

    In this situation, it matters little to me whether my news comes as print on paper, or as text on a screen. It matters much more to me that what I am offered as news is likely to be true.

    I’ve read with some alarm the great book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN JOURNALISM (2010), and I would recommend it to everyone who cares about the quality of news.

    But what am I doing with my small amount of knowledge? My wife and I still subscribe to the Pioneer Press, just to get another source of news that is still to some degree researched and probably accurate. We also contribute to MinnPost, of course.

  5. Submitted by John Reinan on 11/21/2011 - 09:17 am.

    Ha! Good one, Jeff! Well, if you and I can both hang on for another couple of decades, we’ll see who’s right.

    I think the print newspaper will last for a reasonably long time on a less-frequent schedule. I think you’ll see a lot of newspapers over the next 5-10 years go to a three-day-per-week delivery schedule, or even Sunday-only. This is not a particularly bold prediction, because a fair number (including the Detroit News and Free Press) already have done that.

    So when I said print newspapers weren’t sustainable, perhaps I should have qualified that to “not sustainable as a product published 7 days a week.”

    But Bruce’s comment (#1) tells you what today’s (and more importantly, tomorrow’s) consumer is thinking.

  6. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 11/21/2011 - 10:04 am.

    I think the market for a newspaper for breaking news information is low. The power of video helps drive people to the internet also.

    I think the market for a local news glossy magazine with in-depth reporting, top-notch photography and graphics is pretty good. I get my sports scores and weather on the internet but I still like reading National Geographic in print. That’s a high cost model.

  7. Submitted by Rick Graf on 11/21/2011 - 10:27 am.

    Here’s a webpage address to a NYTimes news story from January 2010 that deals with the subject of change in business:

    My work career started as a daily newspaper reporter over 25 years ago. I saw then what happened to pressmen unwilling to adapt to offset printing. Maybe the print versions of newspapers will vanish in the future, but I don’t believe news stories ever will. I’m still able to read news stories in the digital world in so many ways not possible in print.

    Why then the lamenting? Is it over straining to read the newspaper on low-grade grayish newsprint? Or is it over business people (publishers) — who like pressmen dismissed decades ago because they didn’t accept offset printing — waited too long to adapt to the digital world? Change is a inevitable. Every business faces it, some more than others.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/21/2011 - 10:32 am.

    The Pioneer Press is in my genes. My grandfather, father and uncle each worked there for 30 years or more. I and my brothers delivered it for years. I threw Sunday bundles in the mail room on Saturday nights. I’ve subscribed to it since returning to the city almost 30 years ago.

    Yet, when I pick it up off the porch each morning, I find less and less to recommend it. I’ve already seen the national news the night before, online. In fact, I’ve read the same AP articles.

    The only value I find in it is the local news, which continues to diminish.

    The editorial pages are now down to less than a page many days of the week. Articles of substance compete with such things as “Sainted and Tainted” and “Bulletin Board”, both popular features I’m told, but features which are a sad substitute for diverse outlooks on local and national issues of undeniably greater significance.

    I fully expect to see the Strib as the only local daily within 5 years, quite possibly sooner.

  9. Submitted by Melissa Bower on 11/21/2011 - 12:36 pm.

    Mr. Reinan,

    I would agree with your assessment that print products in news are declining.
    That doesn’t mean journalism will end.
    Being an employee of the GateHouse company you mentioned, I think it’s important to note that online journalists can continue the same level of excellence in reporting that print journalists have done for years. In small markets like the ones I work at here in Kansas, it’s already being done.

    I am in my early 30s and have seen a little of both worlds. In the decaying print world, one of my offices was full of admin, sales and production staff that sat around and played fantasy football or screwed around all day — artificially raising the corporate cost of production without contributing to its intake — while myself and a handful of journalists, the producers of news, worked 50 hours a week and stayed late into the night. In the promising world of online journalism, I see young journalists given the chance to produce excellent content with a limited sales staff dedicated to truly helping local businesses enter the online world of marketing.

    As consumers of news, our readers have a new duty to question what they see. Is the story balanced with all points of view? Is it written for politically-motivated reasons? Does the story warrant placement it is given on the local news organization’s website? Is the website in general balanced? Are the journalists objective, or do they have a political background? Many so-called “citizen journalism” sites are popping up around my state, and are in fact generated within political parties. It’s the news consumer’s job to let local news organizations know when they are not meeting your expectations of objective newsgathering and not fulfilling the community’s needs for information.

  10. Submitted by Michael Fleming on 11/21/2011 - 01:25 pm.

    Three days a week? But, what if a major break happens in Mark Trail on Wednesday and we don’t get a paper that day?

  11. Submitted by Paul Steinle on 11/21/2011 - 01:26 pm.

    Dear John,

    We’ve recently completed a 50-state journey, visiting 50 newspapers, one in each state, to see how they are doing.

    We discovered that all of these newspapers (except a few weeklies) are seriously engaged in developing and improving their websites, and other mobile digital platforms, and feeding them with breaking local news.

    If there are “newspaper people” around who are resisting the digital news revolution, they are well hidden; so I found John Paton’s statements baffling.

    Certainly digital news presentation is a DIFFERENT MEDIUM than news delivered on newsprint. It is also consumed in a different manner: digital quickly, serially and in little nuggets, news in print more contemplatively,with random access and in longer takes.

    One publisher told us, digital news delivery is great for the “Who, what, when and where” news and print is great for the “how, why,” the who-cares and the what-does-it-mean news

    But the real underlying issue in this future of newspapers story isn’t any fluctuation in the desire or intention on the part of “newspaper people” to present more news digitally. The intent is there. The problem is earning enough revenue from the digital products to finance a quality news product.

    The revenues from display advertising presented on digital news products earn about 10 percent of similar CPM revenues in print.

    David Carr’s story about Paton’s newspapers did not address this revenue issue (probably because Mr. Paton does not want to talk about it).

    Anyway, many people in the newspaper industry are serving their newspaper readers because those readers and the local advertisers who still use the newspapers to speak to their consumers are paying for the local news coverage — the journalism — during this era.

    The vital issue now is not whether newspapers will die (which they may if no solutions are found) but exactly “how newspaper companies are managing through this transition,” as Christopher Mayer of the Boston Globe told us.

    One of the Globe’s strategies has been to create a second website and charge for it, while still posting their free website with the Globe’s headlines and more generic news.

    A close look across the newspaper industry reveals many new initiatives and a lot of energy being invested into solving the problem of financing quality local journalism.

    So perhaps its time to take closer look at the digital business model and see if it really is any more promising, than a combination of print and digital for the foreseeable future. Perhaps a combined approach of print and digital is, in fact, where the future lies.

  12. Submitted by Hal Davis on 11/22/2011 - 12:00 am.

    Echoing Jeff Michaels, who writes::
    I will file your prophecy regarding the demise of newspapers along with those from 40 and 50 years ago that predicted the end of movie theaters and the radio business.

    In 1944, Oswald Garrison Villard published “The Disappearing Daily: Chapters in American Newspaper Evolution.” His preface cited “the alarming mortality among our dailies … we shall see a still greater decrease in the number now extant which is already quite too small for this nation…”

    Newspapers are still kicking. I’m hoping they’ll stick around.

  13. Submitted by Hal Davis on 11/22/2011 - 12:14 am.

    And I must disagree with James Hamilton (#8), who writes, of the Pioneer Press:
    Articles of substance compete with such things as “Sainted and Tainted” and “Bulletin Board”, both popular features I’m told, but features which are a sad substitute for diverse outlooks on local and national issues of undeniably greater significance.

    I marveled at those two features before I began working for the newspaper. Both draw tremendous reader interest, not least because readers contribute to them. “Bulletin Board” is a sort-of print blog, named after the early Internet-based discussion forums. In “Sainted and Tainted,” readers praise or criticize people’s actions in the community.

    If Mr. Hamilton has already read the AP news the night before, it’s a safe bet he hasn’t read “Sainted and Tainted” or the “Bulletin Board” until he picks up the paper from his porch.

    “Sainted and Tainted,” to some, is a civic barometer. How are we doing? How are we treating each other? To some who read the Pioneer Press, those issues may be more, or as, significant as the weighty “local and national issues” that Mr. Hamilton would like to see more of.

  14. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/22/2011 - 08:20 am.

    #8: “…I’ve read the same AP articles.”

    The vast majority of all non-local “news” content in print papers comes straight off some wire service or other. Why should the consumer care who is feeding him AP feeds? When the content is virtually the same, why should he pay more than he has to for the same product?

    Given the compelling shift to internet distribution, you’d think that newspapers, as a group, would be the leading champions of border-to-border high speed services across the U.S. Is the industry doing anything to promote this?

  15. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/22/2011 - 12:49 pm.

    I appreciate Mr. Davis’ response to my comments on Sainted and Tainted / Bulletin Board.

    Both S&T and BB have the important advantage of being inexpensive to produce, compared to syndicated columnists or the Press’ local opinion contributors, Caryn Sullivan and Jim Ragsdale. Letters to the editor, however, are no more costly. Is it possible that the Press simply doesn’t receive a sufficient number to fill the space?

    I continue to believe that S&T and BB are better suited to the entertainment pages(where BB orginated)than the editorial pages. I also understand that they probably sell more papers, as do the sports pages which comprise a substantial portion of each day’s paper. But when I see a one page opinion section*, half of which is the BB, I can only conclude that the Press has abandoned an important role of the local daily, one that isn’t being filled by (m)any other local media.

    * Today’s editorial content consisted of 1/32 of this morning’s news section and 1/60 of the total content. It included a single syndicated columnist and two letters to the editor. BB occupied an identical space. The Arts & Entertainment section contained 5 pages, including one page of local reporting and four pages of syndicated material.

  16. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/22/2011 - 12:53 pm.

    PS I’ve obviously become an old man yearning for the things we’ve left behind.

  17. Submitted by Hal Davis on 11/22/2011 - 05:57 pm.

    Re James Hamilton’s comments at #15:

    I don’t toil on the editorial pages, so I can’t comment on the relative economics of publishing a syndicated column vs. one locally produced.

    “Bulletin Board” is produced daily, and excellently, by Dan Kelly. It ain’t slapdash. There’s delightful rhythm to his sequencing of the posts. From what I can tell, aside from the New York Times’ weekly Metropolitan Diary, there’s nothing comparable in daily print journalm.

    A guiding principle of the Pioneer Press is original local content. Fewer people work at the paper than used to, so less local content appears than in the past. What does appear, in the pages of the Pioneer Press and nowhere else, continues to impress me.

    Mr. Hamilton writes, “Today’s editorial [opinion] content consisted of 1/32 of this morning’s news section and 1/60 of the total content. … The Arts & Entertainment section contained 5 pages, including one page of local reporting and four pages of syndicated material.”

    That proportion is not unusual. Local content accompanied by non-local, supported mostly by advertising, was the stabndard formula for daily newspapers. Much advertising has drifted to other platforms, not owned by the newspaper company. Hence the doom-sayers like Mr. Reinan.

    The Pioneer Press’s “digital first” strategy attempts to deal with this. Meanwhile, the print product strives to maintain quality and relevance.

    For some of us, it’s a handy way to get a snapshot of the day’s news and other fun stuff. Still.

  18. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 11/23/2011 - 03:35 am.

    I am sure that when the Gutenberg printing press was invented, there were those who sunk into melancholic nostalgia and longed for the good old days. In their mourning they probably died not knowing that, gloriously, the new-fangled gizmo dramatically reduced the price of print and help spread knowledge throughout the world.

    A similar revolution is occurring now in the spread of information. Thanks to the Internet, there are further dramatic price reductions in the flow of information. While in the days of yore, the poor were often left behind outside the flow of information, unable to afford newspapers, now even poor families have Internet access and can be as well-informed as their well-heeled neighbors.

    Equally important, the thoughts of an intelligent and helpful person can be disseminated with ease and read by thousands and millions. No longer can a few publishing families so easily dominate and control public opinion.

    It’s a whole new day! A good new day! Let’s hope it’s better for the environment too than cutting down a lot of trees for newspapers.

    Personally, I missed newspapers for a time but now I’m over it. I also am wondering how wise it was for me to spend all that money on books that take up a lot of space and get dusty.

  19. Submitted by Hal Davis on 11/23/2011 - 07:31 pm.

    Rebecca Hoover:
    “I missed newspapers for a time but now I’m over it. I also am wondering how wise it was for me to spend all that money on books that take up a lot of space and get dusty.”

    I don’t miss newspapers. I read them every day. I like not knowing what I’ll find on the next page.

    And I married someone who, like me, loves independent bookstores. Serendipity carnivals, they are. Long may they wave.

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