Your Take Roundup::Newspapers Are Far From Dead

    by Mark Glaser
    May 8, 2006

    i-3924d004889fbba3fcba9cd75b33db72-Comics newspaper.jpg
    When I was in London last week, I saw just how connected the populace was in the teeming, multi-cultural city. Everywhere I walked, people were listening to iPods or talking on cell phones or texting their friends. Even San Francisco, where I live, doesn’t measure up to the way Londoners are plugged in.

    But when I went down to ride on the Underground, I’d say about 50% to 60% of the people on board the subway had a newspaper in hand — usually the free Metro paper. There was a kind of newspaper etiquette where you put the paper on the little shelf behind the seats so that the next person could pick it up to read. And the people reading the paper were young, old, women, men — just about everyone.

    There were people here and there who were reading mobile devices, mainly sending messages, but they didn’t add up to the newspaper readers. So as I ponder the possible death of print newspapers, I wonder whether all these situations where having a convenient — usually free — newspaper will ever change. Reading on a subway. Reading at a cafe. Reading on the, uh, throne.


    And when I asked you the question of the week — are print newspapers going to die? — you largely said “no” for various reasons. But before I get to your answers, a timely report just came out from the Audit Bureau of Circulations showing that overall newspaper circulation in the U.S. is down 2.6% in the six-month period ending March 31.

    Deep circulation drops came at the San Francisco Chronicle (15.6%) and Boston Globe (8.5%), while USA Today and the Chicago Tribune were both up almost 1% in the period. But even though readership continues to drop, most of you were convinced it wouldn’t drop down to zero. Blogger and freelance journalist Bryan Person says that talk of the imminent death of papers has been around for awhile, but that newspapers continue to reinvent themselves to survive.

    “A print paper, I think, can still thrive with deep investigative reports, feature stories, breathtaking photography, etc.,” Person writes. “There will remain a role for print journalistm to play in our lives — but that role will be an ever-changing one…As much as I consume news online, there’s still something entirely compelling about flipping through the print version of my local newspaper — the Boston Globe in my case — particularly on Sundays. No computer screen can quite match the experience of spreading the Sunday newspaper all over the table or couch, and consuming it section by section.


    “But it’s also true that the onus is on the Globe to continue to put out content in its print editions that includes something new for me to read. We’ll see, but I just can’t imagine the print newspaper will die while I am alive.”

    Then there’s the argument that no new medium has replaced an old one — something that Rick Violette and blogger Hasan Diwan both mentioned.

    “It’s like television being the death of radio, or the cell phone being the death of home phones,” Violette wrote. “Sure there will be a definite shift in the medium, but each medium has its benefits and serves different purposes.”

    Perhaps the circulation problems are with large metro regional newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News (which is being sold in Knight Ridder’s explosion) — with national papers like USA Today and the New York Times surviving and small papers remaining vital to communities where people are less connected in rural areas.

    “There are far too many local, small town papers that would not successfully survive a transition to 100% online,” said Ben, who writes for the Tech Savvy Educator blog. “Most national and international news that I need can be read online, but I must purchase a subscription to my local paper in order to get local news.

    “Despite the growth of broadband Internet access, there are still several hundreds of communities around the nation that rely on dial-up Internet acccess. Gathering news is something that should be quick and immediate, and the last time I checked opening up the paper is a lot faster for most folks than dialing up and searching through all the pages of their local papers’ site.”

    But not everyone thought newspapers would live on for the foreseeable future. Jon Henshaw, who develops websites, is hopeful that that most people will be getting their news from computers and new e-paper readers in a few years.

    “I think with the onset of e-ink, which can be seen in two different readers that are going to be released within the next 6-12 months, all news will be going digital,” wrote Henshaw. “We’re already seeing the shift towards online-only news. For example, one of the most well respected business news outlets in Nashville, the Nashville Post, decided to go 100% digital.”

    And another person, Krishna, backed up Henshaw’s hope for e-paper and e-ink — technologies that would allow you to view digital displays in a paper-like form.

    “If 3-feet-by-4-feet light/solar powered foldable e-paper with full color depth cost less than $5 and was durable for a year then present newspapers will die and multiple newspaper companies will be born to deliver news to people’s e-paper [devices],” he wrote.

    It’s true that e-ink is a promising technology that could shift our habits away from dead trees and toward a flexible, reusable format. However, judging by the way new technologies have to work out bugs and incompatibility issues, these devices still might not be widespread for years or decades.

    What do you think? Are newspapers going to remain important for in-depth investigative reports and reading convenience, or will digital delivery pre-empt them in the near future?

    [Photo of newspaper comics by Glynnis Ritchie]

    • Wow, I heard some really big “ifs” on the “paper’s will die” side of the argument. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for increased use of technology wherever applicable, but a 3 by 4 foot piece of e-paper that’s solar powered, foldable, and durable for over a year only costing 5 dollars? I’m a bit skeptical on that one for at least a few decades. Paper is just too cheap and too renewable for most major our minor publication houses to consider shifting over to an expensive petroleum-based products (anyone else concerned about rising oil costs).

      Imagine the amount of indestructible litter that would be created from the use of e-ink paper. It’s bad enough now that people casually toss plastic soda pop containers and cups out their windows, could you imagine having a flag-sized piece of polymer paper smack across your windowshield on the highway or blow across your lawn?

    • While your reader’s comment that “no new media has replaced an old one” is, on the surface, true — what is left unsaid is that every new media has brought dramatic changes to the old ones.

      I think the underlying discussion is actually about the scope and timeline for a transformation in what we expect to see on newsprint. Just as television news tranformed newspapers by eliminating market demand for an afternoon paper, the Internet is transforming what we look for in a morning paper.

      For example, I think your photograph with this story was right on target — color comics are exactly the kind of thing that can be cheaply produced on newsprint, read between two stops on the tube, and are transient enough that a reader will not go to a great deal of trouble to load them on a mobile device.

      On the other hand, what happens when there is WiFi in the Underground and people start using larger screen devices to watch TV (or better yet, video content from websites). How will this change the terrain for newspapers? What parts of the role of the newspaper will go away and what new things will emerge?

      Prediction one: printed newspapers will contain less and less of what I NEED to know and more and more that is just entertaining;

      Prediction two: color comics and photo galleries which would take longer to download to a device and look better in a large format will grow in popularity with print publishers replacing text;

      Prediction three: in ten years, paper will be a medium for communicating with the poor as anyone who can afford an always connected digital reader will have one — not just to read the news but also for email and/or instant messaging…

    • I agree with Ted Shelton that there is and will be a market for more heavily graphical newspapers into the future (in particular comics as was judiciously noted). I will go so far as to predict a resurgence in the coming years due to the “nostalgia effect” as a new generation of digiratis discovers old print media.

      However the good old days of rampaging rollicking newspaper empires are gone forever. Newspaper publishing will eventually be relegated to the status of arts and crafts and will be done as a passtime or a school project (like paper photography).

      And a footnote: to compare attitudes and behaviors of tightly knit, socialized countries like the UK and European nations to the US is a mistake. The US is a still a highly individualized society that behaves much less like a unified whole than say a European or Asian country. Witness text messaging: big in Europe and Japan, almost non-existent here. (Blackberries are much more predominant in the US)

    • I absolutely agree that newspapers will continue to have a role. They fill a media niche just as radio does. The advent of digital ink offers the intriguing possibility that we will be able to access news 24/7 via a much more accessible format than computer or mobile phone. For more thoughts on this topic check out http://www.mb-blog.com and the post “Do newspapers face a tough road ahead?”

    • I believe that newspapers will shrink, but will not go away. However, they will have to content with a broad trend, which is the increasingly scarce consumer attention to any one medium. Some have described this environment as The Attention Economy.

      I just wrote an article projecting this trend’s effect on TV, the Internet, and newspapers and magazines. You can read for the next day or so by clicking on my name or at its permanent link:


      Newspapers and magazines do have one huge asset in their favor that will allow them to remain relevant in this new attention economy: branded content. And branded content becomes the dominant force in a scarce attention environment. So while we may only see a few newspapers thrive in any given market, there will likely always be at least one brand that survives.

      Thanks for a great thought-provoking article.

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