Today's topic: Are newspapers dying, or is it just a class of newspapers that isn't sustainable? Today through Friday, Alan D. Mutter and Jeff Jarvis discuss the state of the American newspaper industry.
Innovate quickly, or even the healthiest papers could fold Point: Alan D. Mutter
Just as financially weak newspapers -- and businesses in other fields -- succumbed during every economic crisis in history, some newspapers today are dying or already dead. The Rocky Mountain News of Denver recently shut down, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its final edition on Tuesday. The Tucson Citizen was expected to fold this weekend, but potential buyers that could save the newspaper have recently emerged.
But something different is happening this time. Even formerly healthy newspapers were in trouble before the economy began to fizzle. And this particularly brutal downturn could prove fatal to more of them.
Although American newspapers collectively sold a record high of $49.5 billion in advertising as recently as 2005, their revenues have plunged by nearly 20% in the ensuing years to erode the substantial profits that historically enabled them to fund the largest number of reporters serving the communities in which they operate.
The potential loss of all those "feet on the street" poses a significant threat to our democracy, as there never has been a point in history that a free and vigorous press has not served as a watchdog on the government.
Newspapers are struggling because many readers -- especially younger ones -- prefer to get their information through from a variety of online and mobile media. Newspapers also are struggling because many advertisers have forsaken them for the new, interactive media.
Advertisers, who had limited means of accessing potential customers prior to the Web, have learned how to reach highly targeted prospects through platforms such as Craigslist or the small ads next to Google search results.
It costs nothing to advertise for a car or an apartment on Craigslist. Google ads cost no more than a few dollars a click, saving advertisers hundreds and even thousands of dollars over the costs of an ad in a newspaper.
Although these disruptive trends in technology, consumer preference and advertiser behavior have been brewing for more than a decade, most newspaper publishers were slow to abandon the lucrative print publishing model that served them well for more than a century.
Worse, many publishers borrowed too much money to finance ill-conceived and ill-timed acquisitions. That's why Tribune Co., which publishes The Times, and three other large media companies in recent weeks have filed for bankruptcy protection from their creditors.
Are all newspapers doomed? Not necessarily. The ones losing money may not be able to raise revenues and cut expenses fast enough to survive in this difficult economy. The most endangered newspapers are the No. 2 titles in the few cities fortunate enough to have more than one paper.
Although most publishers still make a profit -- especially those in small and medium markets that concentrate on providing local news that readers can't get anywhere else -- the long-term trends suggest that there will be continued declines in readership and advertising support.
The publishers able to thrive in the future will be the ones who develop growing arrays of print and interactive products to appeal to such targeted audiences as sports fans, businesspeople, homemakers and more. They will have learned to produce content efficiently, build audiences by leveraging the viral nature of the Internet and sell advertising to broader and deeper ranges of advertisers than they do today.
Some publishers may be able to continue to print newspapers every day of the week. Some may print on only certain days of the week to save money. And some may elect to move to online-only platforms.
But the ones who fail to innovate rapidly enough may be lost altogether.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor turned businessman turned independent media analyst. He lives in San Francisco and writes about the impact of technology on the media at his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur.
It's the journalism -- not the newspaper -- that's important Counterpoint: Jeff Jarvis
Frankly, dear readers, I don't give a damn whether papers survive. I care whether journalism advances and whether communities can get the information they need, which includes reporting. That is why I teach the craft. That is also why I've argued for years that newspapers should have planned for the date when they would turn off their presses so they would reinvent themselves. They didn't.
I now realize, in my mind's eye, that I had hoped -- and worked, unsuccessfully -- for an orderly transition from the old to the new: a Jan. 20 for newspapers when the print president would hand over control to the digital president. I now see that there will be no such smooth shift because, understandably, it's hard to disrupt and destroy yourself. There will be destruction, voids and vacuums. Good people -- not just reporters and editors but pressmen and drivers and classified sales people -- will lose their jobs. In too many towns, news will fall silent.
But news will rise from those ashes. I am confident in that because I believe there is a market demand for quality news and information, and where there is a market, someone will meet the demand. I also heard a sign of hope when the editor of this paper, Russ Stanton, said a few weeks ago that the online advertising revenue of latimes.com is now sufficient to cover the payroll costs of the entire editorial operation, print and online. Granted, that doesn't cover other expenses, like building maintenance (do we need a newsroom?). But it starts to become plausible to imagine advertising sustaining a digital enterprise of scale covering a city.
Let's not lull ourselves, though, into thinking that we can transplant old models and methods to our new world. The news phoenix that rises will be very different from what we have known because we have opportunities to gather and share news in new (and better) ways, because upcoming generations traffic in media in very different ways, and because the economics of the media industry -- not to mention the auto, banking, retail, health and education industries -- are fundamentally changed in our new world as we begin to see the shape of a truly post-industrial society. We must question every old assumption.
So we will arrive at a new vision of news only through experimentation, as Clay Shirky said in his excellent essay on the state and fate of papers. I want to see many experiments -- and I am seeing them. At the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach, I organized a New Business Models for News Summit -- to which you contributed, Alan -- in which we showcased a dozen entrepreneurs who see great opportunity in building new companies built around news. At the school, I teach a course in entrepreneurial journalism. It's more likely -- isn't it? -- that the future of news will rise not out of an old pressroom but out of somebody's garage or dorm room. And so we must invest in that future rather than wasting time trying to protect a past that we know -- don't we? -- is doomed.
Mind you, I do believe in the eternal verities of journalism; I teach them. I believe there is much to bring forward from news organizations; that is why I think it is vital that veteran journalists should be taught everything from podcasting to blogging to business. I believe that news and journalists have a future. But that future will be different from its past. That's a topic for another day.
Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?," teaches journalism at the City University of New York and writes about news and media on his blog, Buzzmachine.com, and as a columnist for the Guardian.