Shoptalk: Future of Newspapers is Still in Print

By: Lincoln Millstein

I’ve got news for the newspaper industry.

Your future is in print and not in the killing fields of digital media where the Duopoly is choking off the blood supply.

I learned this the hard way, giving birth to boston.com and then resuscitating nytimes.com during the crash of 2001-2002. I promulgated the “digital first” mantra, a fatuous promise if there ever was one, as if an eponymous change could cure our ills.

Almost 25 years into this “experiment,” I get feint nausea as publishers and editors take precious resources out of their newsrooms, even though most newspapers still get two-thirds of their revenue from print. Consider the recent missive from the Wall Street Journal that senior editors must re-apply for new jobs in its latest reorg.

“Reorg”—now that’s a word which has crept into our lexicon without much warning, but with much foreboding. It means that “since we don’t really know what is going to happen, we’ve decided to shake things up a bit.” Unfortunately, it signals another unintended message: panic.

The New York Times, Gannett, Wall Street Journal and others are cannibalizing their only differentiating asset—print newsrooms—for a future in which they are a marginal player at best. Gannett has so depleted its local operations, it is committing journalism malpractice to prop up a brand that has virtually no consumer demand—USA Today. It is no surprise that Gannett is reporting a significant decline in subscription revenue—almost 8 percent—while print subscriptions remain a salvation for most newspapers. The New York Times is also deconstructing its newsroom to fund dubious digital initiatives. The world does not need another cooking app.

Compare that with the Washington Post, where owner Jeff Bezos has added 140 journalists since he acquired the paper in 2013. “What they needed was a little bit of runway and the encouragement to experiment, and to stop shrinking. You can’t shrink your way into relevance,” Bezos said. “We’ve grown our way into profitability instead of shrinking our way into profitability.”

The industry is also squandering a rare opportunity—the deus ex machina of fake news and the mess in Washington—which has resulted in the biggest increase in subscriptions to newspapers in more than two decades. But Donald Trump will not be president forever.

I cut my teeth as a reporter for the Hartford Courant in Middletown, Conn., where I would try to sneak a peek into the mayor’s calendar when his secretary wasn’t looking, bribe the court clerk with scotch so he would read me back juicy transcripts, flirt with the clerk who filed all the building applications and download all the gossip from the loquacious health inspector. I was doing a job readers valued and could not do themselves. Do local reporters even walk beats anymore? Or do they sit in cubicles, emailing, texting, posting and browsing their way to gathering news?

My articles had a permanence to it, because it took 24 hours to produce—not 30 seconds with the tap of an index finger—and because the process of story generation, fact finding, sourcing, writing and redacting by some sullen, uncompromising copy editor only made my articles better for their accuracy, luminosity and revelatory surprise. And trusted because they were on paper.

Digital media has its place. Its mobility and real time delivery of news are special indeed. But it’s not a replacement for print. The book industry cycled through this and there is much to learn there. After a decade of decline, print books began a comeback at the end of 2014. By the end of 2016, eBooks were declining 11 percent in sales while print books were increasing at 4 percent.

Chantal Restivo-Alessi, the chief digital officer for Harper Collins, said holding the price for the hardcover is important to establish value. Once you start to discount for that core product, or eliminate it, pricing becomes a slippery slope for the paperback and eBooks.

In a world without print, you’re subject to the vagaries of a perpetually disruptive marketplace. Quick question: When reading on your smartphone, how often do you correctly recall the source?

After predictions of the death of the newspaper for 25 years, more than 1,300 are still publishing every day. The New York Times sells to more than 1 million print buyers, the Houston Chronicle delivers to more than 300,000 homes every Sunday. This is heartening given the massive shift from an advertising reliant business model to a largely subscription-based industry.

What if we actually started to produce a better product, filled with enterprising journalism, as if every page offered insightful discovery, instead of 30-hour-old canned news?

It will never be 1998 again for American newspapers, nor will they ever see 1999 or 2000 again. Newspapers must rebuild themselves from scratch, page by page, going back to an era predating advertising—to the early nineteenth century when they were a high-priced item for the literate and the influential and they co-existed with bloggers (pamphleteers). Only then will advertising return at scale, when marketers fully appreciate the influence of the readership.

As an industry guaranteed by our constitution, publishers will need to be ruthless about controlling the cost of anything that isn’t journalism. Citizens will continue to pay for protection from tyranny only if they believe newspapers are a true vanguard.

Lincoln Millstein is a former newspaper journalist and executive. He recently was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to write his book on the newspaper industry. To read this article in its entirety, visit bit.ly/2vDUkmk.

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Published: October 13, 2017

3 thoughts on “Shoptalk: Future of Newspapers is Still in Print

  • October 13, 2017 at 10:06 am
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    Good article, something I’ve been thinking for sometime now. I’m a small town newspaper owner and digital is not our world to compete in, its controlled by Google, Facebook, etc. Stick with what you know, invest in making your primary product, a newspaper (the one that actually brings in real dollars) the best it can be, offering real in-depth news and features. This will be what sets you apart, and it will be more reader focused. The big hurdle is you would have to somewhat change your revenue model to the print newspaper being a premium product and charge more per copy and for subscriptions. I believe this to be true, but my main concern with readership shrinking after years of having a website and making cuts to print is how do you build the audience back up with a “costs more” model. I agree some would pay a premium for a quality print newspaper, but I think social behavior has changed so greatly in the past few years that most peoples appetite for content gets filled by what’s offered for free online and in social media, even on a local level.

    Reply
  • October 14, 2017 at 2:04 pm
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    The small town publisher where I live believes that no one wants to hear local hard news, just fundraisers, sports and award ceremonies (pr). The big paper has abandoned most local news for its free website which it pretends makes $$. It doesn’t. So there’s not much left. I’m beginning to think a hard copy newsletter might draw some interest.

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  • October 16, 2017 at 7:37 am
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    Good points about investment versus cutting expenses. The latter is a short-term fix with potentially catastrophic long-term consequences.

    On the other hand, the author ignores some basic demographic changes that have as much impact, or more, on newspapers than the Internet. Millennials and younger folks simply will not read a printed newspaper, nor are they likely ever to do so.

    The successful newspaper model, even in small markets, must take that trend into account.

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