I’ll probably read a print newspaper until I die. And that’s a problem for the newspaper business; its most loyal customers are closer to death than to birth.
The nation’s leading newspaper companies made their quarterly financial reports over the last couple of weeks, and the decline in print advertising continued:
- New York Times: print ads down 7 percent
- Gannett: print down 5 percent
- Washington Post: print down 4 percent
- McClatchy: print down more than 7 percent
- Lee: print down more than 6 percent.
All these companies are furiously trying to transition away from print and into digital. But print advertising still accounts for the lion’s share of their business — anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of revenue. Although the decline in print advertising has slowed since the panicky days of 2008-09, when it was tumbling by double digits, it shows no signs of actually increasing.
So what most newspapers are doing is managing decline. One way they do that is by cutting costs.
Just last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer joined several of its corporate brethren in cutting back both home delivery days and staff. The Plain Dealer, which now will deliver to homes only four days a week, cut about 50 jobs from its already depleted newsroom, leaving a headcount of about 110 journalists to cover a metro area of about 2 million. Its owner, Advance Publications, has already implemented the same strategy at newspapers it owns in New York, Alabama, Michigan, Oregon and Louisiana.
Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, last week rolled out a series of layoffs at dozens of newsrooms from coast to coast.
What does this mean for Twin Cities newspaper readers?
Since both the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press are privately owned, we can’t look at their numbers. But it would be surprising if they were outliers, compared with the companies listed above, which collectively own a couple of hundred papers of all sizes from coast to coast. It’s likely that they’re seeing single-digit declines in print advertising coupled with growth in digital that doesn’t yet make up for the print losses.
And yet they could well remain profitable even amidst their long slide. The Strib’s publisher told me last year that the paper was running a low double-digit profit. That’s not the 30 percent margin the paper posted in its glory days, but it’s still a performance most businesses would be thrilled with. If the paper can be content with that kind of relatively modest profit, then it has a chance to avoid the cuts that greedier publishers are making.
Many newspapers are making great strides toward building their digital revenue — both from digital advertising and from making consumers pay to read the news online. But whether they’ll make enough money to continue as vibrant, influential news organizations is a question that ultimately might be settled only after I and other loyal print readers have landed in the recycling bin.