Newspapers: Are they dying or just evolving?

paper.pngFROM JASON’S PAYCHECK — Yes, I am a journalist. No, I am not worried about the protracted decline of American newspaper circulation.

I’m not going to ignore the reality: Daily print readership continues to dwindle at a stately but concerning pace. Morning papers have reached a near-homeostatic state at about 47 million readers per day in the U.S., constituting about a sixth of the population.

In the past three years alone, the market has been slapped with a 6.3 percent readership reduction. Much of that can be attributed to the expansion of online news sources and Web 2.0 aggregating sites like Digg. An equal amount of lost circulation, though, can be chalked up to the federal Do Not Call Registry, which has crippled direct subscription sales.

The good news is that the big losses are, for the most part, limited to the largest corporate news providers. Metro papers lost the greatest portion of circulation and revenues in 2006, especially in big markets like Philadelphia and San Francisco. Personally, I think it has to do with unionization out-pricing the product amid declining demand.

Those same metro papers also have the highest concentration of broadband users, and the erudite demographic most likely to read newspapers (62 percent of readers are college graduates) is also likely to use the Web with great frequency.

In that respect, the problem isn’t so much that the news industry is in decline — just the ink-and-paper end of it.

The county where I live on the outskirts of Cleveland has a little more than 300,000 residents, but the daily newspaper at which I work had roughly 816,000 hits on its website in July. Publishers should be happy — after all, it takes much less energy and money to make content available on the Internet.

The only thing standing in the way of a paperless print news industry is a working business model. Advertisers haven’t made the jump from paper pages to HTML pages yet, and with good reason — tangible over-the-counter sales are often impulse buys, whereas it takes much more work to get people to log on and visit any given site. What’s more, only 73 percent of Americans have daily access to the Internet, cutting a quarter of the salable print market out of the picture.

But as ‘Net usage continues its steep upward growth — about 2 million new users a month, and generally blind to income brackets — newspapers are experimenting with new methods of content delivery.

sony_dcrdvd608_camcorder.jpgAnecdotal evidence from my interaction with other Ohio Newspaper Association employees shows that across the state reporters are being trained en masse in the use of video cameras and digital editing software. Posting such supplemental content (footage of fires, police dash cam tapes, surveillance video, statements from crime victims, fluff segments of pets and high school sports) could well be the key from getting people to log on.

It’s all about incentive.

People are starting to see television news for what it really is: Entertainment. They enjoy seeing pictures of suspects in handcuffs and man-on-the-street opinion pieces. What they want from TV news coverage, though, is what TV doesn’t have time to do. They want in-depth investigative coverage of events. There is a larger calling than ever before for a multimedia experience, and technology is making that cheap and easy to provide on-the-fly.

I carry a camera like the one above at all times; the video is trivially imported, edited, branded with corporate logos, and hosted on YouTube within minutes at my office. I’ve noticed that stories with accompanying video get about 20 to 30 percent more hits than those without.

Subscription-only sites are disappearing rapidly, too, as publishers see the financial benefits of providing free access to at least some of their content. No newspaper would be so daft — yet, anyway, as the online business model is still being hammered out — to put all of its content online, but more and more is added. After all, additional virtual space doesn’t cost anything, really.

Conversely, newsprint costs are exploding as demand decreases and gas prices increase. North American mills cut newsprint supplies by 19 percent in 2006, while at the same time attempting a per-ton hike of $30 — the second such in the past year.

Personally, I think a general decline in literacy in the U.S. is as much to blame as anything else. Let’s face it, the newspaper industry was fated to suffer some kind of customer loss sheerly through market fragmentation. The more sources of entertainment there are, the fewer people will participate in any given one. Television has wrestled with this as the four major networks became five, then again with the proliferation of cable-exclusive channels in the 1980s.

Couple that with shoddy education; the U.S. ranks 10th of the world’s 17 richest nations in adult literacy, and even lower among the same pool in functional comprehension. Perhaps that’s why in 1998 journalism majors were being taught to write for an eighth grade reading level, and by 2006 the standard had lowered to fourth grade.

I’ve been told to cut “complicated” words from news articles: Opaque, inert, anomaly, culpable, obviate, emulate, innocuous.

Despite reworking business models and falling standards, I think newspapers will always have a profitable place in the American economy. People are curious. They are nosy. They want to know what’s going on and what it means.

The Internet is good at providing that at a macro level, but very bad about providing information at a micro level. While big players like Gannett, Tribune, and Knight Ridder have and will continue in the foreseeable future to endure losses, the market can’t help but eventually self-correct because the demand for information is inherent to human nature.

There must always be gatherers of that information, especially at the local level. Regional and small-town dailies will thrive, and weekly rags are seeing a renaissance because of their unique specialization. The news business isn’t going anywhere, it’s just changing with the face of modern America.

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2 Responses to Newspapers: Are they dying or just evolving?

  1. Jim Tucker says:

    Hey Jason
    That’s the mosty lucid analysis I have seen on what’s happening to journalism. And believe me, mate, I read ’em all.
    Fancy a trip to little ole New Zealand to work with my journalism students? We’re “importing” the UK’s top student journalist blogger, Dave Lee (check him out) for the first six weeks of our next J programme next June. Interested? I’ll easily find the funding to fly you here for a sojourn downunder.
    Check me out on Google (I’m the journalism educator – not the sleazy southern baptist preachers with the same name).
    Regards
    Jim Tucker
    Journalism Programme Manager
    Whitiriea School of Journalism
    Wellington New Zealand

  2. HMTKSteve says:

    Was that 816,000 hits or page views? I hope it was page views because hits are usually 10 times page views (spiders count as hits). If that is hits than the site you mention is in some serious trouble.

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