Ink, dead trees and you

On Midday today, host Mike Edgerly will be discussing the future of newspapers with Rick Edmonds, a former reporter, editor and publisher who is now a researcher for the Poynter Institute, and Ken Doctor, former managing editor of the Pioneer Press.

We all know the simple version of the story. The web is displacing newspapers as a mass medium, newspapers therefore are doomed. Various offshoots of that narrative tend to blame the content – because the “MSM” is too liberal/conservative, they’ve alienated their readers who are now turning to the vast cornucopia of perspectives available on the Internet. Or something like that.

But in reality, newspapers don’t have a content problem, they have a business problem.

It’s important to distinguish newspapers as an advertising vehicle and newspaper journalism. Demand for the latter is higher than it’s ever been, but it’s the advertising – the print advertising – that has always paid the bills (and still does). As I’ve noted on this blog before, a good chunk of the journalism you’re reading online is subsidized by those ads. Fewer readers = fewer ads = fewer reporters = fewer readers, and on we go.

The paradox should be familiar to media-watchers by now: Absent a new revenue model for newspapers, most of the newspaper journalism we read online goes away. No such thing as a free ride.

When you compare a printed paper to the web as a means of transmitting information, the printed paper is impractical to the point of being absurd. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s put practicality aside for a moment. Are there things that the printed newspaper does that technology can’t displace? And are those things valuable enough to allow newspapers to continue as a viable commodity?

  • bob

    You left out a huge aspect — the fact that the production and distribution of print media is awful on the environment. Whether it’s the logging, the pulping, running the printing presses, the oil and gas used for transporting raw materials as well as the finished product, print media is, pure and simple, environmentally unsustainable and is truly a dinosaur business model.

    Even if print media did deliver something newer technology can’t, it would hardly offset the environmental costs.

    I say, let it die.

  • Bob Collins

    What is the measurement for determining that demand for newspapers’ journalism has never been higher. I see vast declines in circulation everywhere and it’s been years, I think, since I met a person under 30 who admits to having a paper delivered. (g)

  • Ken Paulman

    @bobcollins: Web traffic.

    I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but my understanding is for most papers, web traffic gains outpace lost print circulation. That’s been reflected in nearly every editor or publisher layoff announcement I’ve seen.

    The problem is those added readers don’t translate into revenue.

  • Curtis

    I’m 23 and I subscribe to a daily newspaper. I find it to be convenient; it’s easy to tuck in a bag and read while on the bus, while waiting for someone, etc. without needing to find a wi-fi hotspot. Also, the simple act of settling down and reading a paper is more enjoyable to me. Generally on a computer there are about 3 other things you’re doing at the same time as reading from a news site (as is the case right now). The above reasons won’t stop the death of the newspaper, but they are enough for me to continue buying them.

  • Heather

    I *looooooooooooove* the Washington Post and the New York Times. Online. I access their content every day. However, even if I *liked* paper papers, home delivery doesn’t seem very practical at this distance.

    My local paper? I do look at it occasionally, online, but would not pay a dime to have it delivered to my house. The level of reporting is just not there, even on local news, and the editorial page gives me the whim-whams.

  • Jon

    I can’t produce a graph to prove this, but my impression is that print ad revenues have dropped much more than readership in the last decade. It makes sense – why sell your bike in the Strib when you can do it on craigslist? Why would a company buy an ad in the paper to post a job when they can now just use the HR section of their own website? Readership could double and I don’t think that ad revenue ever bounces back.

    Also the death of newspapers does not necessarily mean the death of journalism. The two have been so intertwined for so long, that we just assume journalism dies if the modern newspaper dies. Maybe, but hopefully not. We’re just still trying to figure out new ways to pay for journalism. One such way might be how public radio works – donations versus ads. Perhaps individuals subscribe directly to AP and Reuters eventually.

    Local papers (Strib, Pioneer Press) may devolve into mostly local news, almost a glorified version of neighborhood papers. Or, they’ll go the other way, shrink to tabloid size, with content mostly from the major news wires and available for free (think of the Metro newspapers in Boston & NYC). Or cut back to only a large weekend edition. Or none of the above. The story is still being written.