The vanishing newspaper, updated

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People have been making predictions on the timing of the death of newspapers for years, and they’re all pretty ridiculous. No, ridiculous is the wrong word because the end is coming for most. But the predictions are off-target, usually by a lot.

I’m reminded of that because Jim Romenesko sent me a posting he made four years ago, quoting Jeffrey I. Cole, director of USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future, who predicted that most newspapers would be dead by 2016. Jim’s post included my response, which was “wanna bet?” (No one did, dammit!)

I’m aware that newspapers continue to lay off people, most recently in Philadelphia, Boston and LA. And we only hear about the big papers. Who knows how many people in smaller newspapers have been cut “to align the business with the changing market”? But as I told Romenesko yesterday, I’m confident that my response to that post four years ago will hold up.

Newspapers aren’t growing and they continue to lose readers and advertisers — hello, layoffs! — but they still make money, sometimes in spite of themselves. They just cover less news, produce fewer pages and have fewer staff members to do it. Is the paper as good as it was 10 or 20 years ago? Few people outside of publishers would say so. Does it make as much money? Absolutely not. But it’s still there, delivering news and information that people – most of them 60 and older – want.

Five years ago, Alan Mutter did some calculations about the lifespan of newspapers that are built on more than anecdotes and emotion. His work is similar to Phil Meyer‘s before that. I’l repeat what Phil said in response to my post four years ago: “If you are willing to build your own good will from scratch, there should come a time when you can acquire a newspaper for 20 percent of the historic cost, manage for a 6 percent margin, and enjoy the same return on investment that required a 30 percent margin in the good old days.”

What’s more, as the book value of newspapers continues to decline, more “hometown” business people will buy their hometown papers for cheap. Already happening. That has its own set of problems, but it does continue a newspaper’s life.

Of course, unless most of them change their ways, they will be less relevant in their communities. Fewer reporters means that they run from one assignment to the next. Few newspapers outside of the nation’s largest commit resources to investigative reporting. And fewer readers mean that newspapers have less influence, which is unfortunate because it seems — based on the support some of the GOP presidential candidates get for their cockamamie schemes — as if the citizenry is happily uninformed. But that’s a different issue.

My prediction, which could be ridiculous and likely off-target, is this: Most newspapers will live well into the 2020s. They will continue to get smaller and many, if not most, will reduce the number of days per week they deliver. But as long as the current readers are alive — those who have decided they like the experience of newspaper reading — they’ll have an uncertain, yet safe, place.

3 thoughts on “The vanishing newspaper, updated

  1. Pingback: The vanishing newspaper, updated | Greensboro 101

  2. I mostly agree with your position. The fact of the matter is that, although the business is shrinking, the challenges are much more pronounced in major metros. I realize that this isn’t an earth shattering insight, however, when you consider some small markets where there are virtually no major competitors, or the main newspaper has acquired them, the differences are pretty striking. This is mostly based upon conversations and the reality that your fall isn’t as profound if you are not that high up, typically built upon department stores, national, and recruitment advertising. The concepts of NPs really aren’t the issue, nor are their impact. It really comes down to the business model itself with the fabrication and delivery costs playing a huge role. It feels like we should not be planning around the economics of today as much as the next decade, but that is a lot tougher than it sounds. I will predict that once devices are essentially disposable that the print product will become a thing of the past in many areas. Think about what a calculator cost when it first came about. That is another challenge as the value proposition of a display ad in digital is no where near that of print.

  3. I agree with the that if cost-slashing chains continue to buy papers, the date of demise will speed up as they try to get 15 to 20 cents on a dollar of profit. That will lead to some of the “zombie papers” we see with tiny staffs and tiny news holes. We have seen a couple of smaller chains (Adams for example) that buy cheap and don’t cut further. That’s the best one can hope for

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