The Newspaper Question

Here is an article that tries to debunk the conventional wisdom that newspapers need to stop investing in the print product.

Newspapers are declining (for lots of reasons), the websites of newspapers are growing (slowly, if at all). Newspapers sure have some problems to tackle. But a business strategy that puts your web presence first is one that ignores which of those products reaches the most people. Print may be fast asleep. But it's not even close to being dead.

Some official statistics make the internet audience for newspapers seem very large indeed. Much larger than they actually are. And we print folk fall for it. We hear numbers with the word million in them and we didn't want to question it. But we have to now. Because this is the fuel that feeds the ideas of newspaper managements across the globe and makes them leap over the revenue precipice. And frankly, the numbers for print and web are tough to compare accurately like for like.


He goes on to make the case that newspapers need to invest more money into the print product, and not merely the web. This is an interesting take on it. I am very optimistic about the what the web will mean (and what it already does mean) in terms of providing information, but he is right about one thing.

Newspapers facing a a tough road in a transitional period have reacted in the worst way possible: they have made their product worse. If you read Romenesko (which, by the way, is a site I could not live without) you see it everyday; newsroom positions are being cut, sometimes swiftly and drastically; Washington bureaus and foreign bureaus are being scrapped all together; so are book reviews and news analysis sections; the newspapers are getting thinner and more reliant on wire copy and correspondent copy -- hell even interns are getting the shaft in a big way.

Now publishers are making the case that these changes are painful, but needed for survival -- when if fact, they will only accelerate and ensure their demise. The industry did not have to respond this way. The could have improved the product, made bold changes, and thought about the long term. Instead they have only given readers another reason to stop reading, and many have taken them up on the offer.

The problem, of course, is that many newspapers are part of publicly traded companies, and are answering to their shareholders, as they are legally obligated to do. This of course means that they will do anything to maximize profit and minimizing losses for the next quarter, as their shareholders demand. The long term health of the news industry and the role of a vibrant press in a democratic society do not seem to be too high of a priority for shareholders. It doesn't help matters that the newspapers used to be a hugely profitable industry, bringing in around 20 percent annual growth (much higher than most industries) , so investors are not just reacting to losses, but also in slowed growth -- which is simply a reality that must be dealt with. No industry can sustain this growth forever.

The truth is, many people are done with newspapers because they find them to be less valuable then they once were. The internet as a competitor is a huge factor, but it isn't what is killing the newspaper alone. Outside the US, the newspaper business is booming.

There are exciting possibilities about how to save - and improve - the newspaper that are not even entertained because of the financial structure that they exist in. (I will get into them in a future post, but this article by John Nichols, Newspapers and After , highlights some of them.)

I still have doubts about the longterm future of the newspapers as we know it. It really does not make a whole lot of sense to waste the paper, the trees, the gas and so forth, when one could simply get it online. But no matter, the country needs quality journalism now, as they will in the future -- whether in print or otherwise -- and cutting reporters and weakening coverage is making good journalism, harder and harder to find. Yes, they are investing on the web, but more on production, visuals and technology, and less on actual reporting.

When newspapers simply dismantle their product they are telling their audience (and those who could become a part of the audience) to go away. And if that trend persists it will be, more than anything, what ensures its death.