As Digital Fatigue Sets In, Readers are Waking Up to Newspapers

Illustration by Tony O. Champagne
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

For years now, media analysts have said technology will save print—and maybe it will, just not in the way they predicted. The news industry is going through an overload of information particularly in the digital sphere. We can point our fingers at the 24-hour news cycle. We can blame social media. But according to marketing expert Andrew Davis, 17 new Web pages are published every second. If you think about it, said Davis, in a span of five seconds that’s 85 new Web pages getting uploaded to the Internet.

“Just because there is more information available, it doesn’t mean one can consume more,” he said in a Shweiki Media webinar titled “The Future of Digital is Print.”

Davis suggested that print products shouldn’t contribute to the surplus of information brought on by their digital counterparts. Instead, they should create content consumers want to consume—and that’s where quality over quantity comes in.

With the recent rise of ad-blockers, it shows audiences are unhappy with their digital experiences, and as digital fatigue sets in among consumers, the newspaper industry—and print—is poised for a revival.


Tech Fighting Tech

By now you’ve read the stats: the number of people using ad blocking software has grown 41 percent year over year, and the estimated loss of global revenue due to blocked advertising during 2015 was almost $22 billion. According to an Adobe and Pagefair report, findings showed that ad blocking users grew from 21 million in 2010 to 181 million in 2015.

Our Digital Publishing columnist Rob Tornoe discussed the ad blocking phenomenon recently, stating, “Most users aren’t driven to ad blockers to block all ads, but instead aim to improve their Web browsing experience by ridding themselves of things most publishers also hate—autoplay video, annoying pop-ups and intentionally hard-to-close interstitials.”

In a Columbia Journalism Review article, Washington Post staff writer Michael Rosenwald said,The damage is more than financial. It’s existential. The rise of ad blocking comes just as the media industry had settled on a revenue model to move forward after years of disruption and pain. The new model looked a lot like the old one: circulation revenue plus ad revenue equals sustainability. With so few people willing to pay for news, advertising was supposed to bring up the rear.”

And unlike print ads, Rosenwald said digital ads aren’t “static.”

“They blink. They follow. They irritate. And readers can do what they never could in print: erase them,” he said.

To compete with digital giants like Facebook and Google, newspapers have had to bet big on online advertising. Now, ad blocking software is preventing them from taking a piece of the revenue pie. It’s another example of technology once again hindering newspapers.

To combat against ad blocking, many publishers are asking readers to uninstall their ad blocking software. Digiday reported that Forbes magazine started blocking the site to some ad block users.

“Visitors using desktop browser ad blockers are greeted with a polite but firm message on the ‘welcome screen’ ad page Forbes serves prior to landing on its site,” Digiday’s Brian Morrissey said. “Once an ad blocker is disabled, users are promised the ‘ad-light experience’ for 30 days.”

While publications like Forbes chooses to reward its readers for turning off their ad blockers, others have taken harsher approaches. According to the Guardian, Germany’s Axel Springer banned readers who used ad blockers from its Bild tabloid website. Visitors either had to turn off their ad blocker or pay a monthly fee to browse the website mostly ad-free, reported the Guardian.

In March, The Verge reported that major French news outlets, including Le Monde, Le Parisien, and L’Équipe, launched a week-long campaign against ad blocking software, forcing some users to uninstall the software before accessing the sites. The initiative’s aim was to “reminder readers that their content and services are not free, and to remind them of the indispensable character of advertising as a source of finance.”

When one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, went after Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, the lawsuit was thrown out, and the court “dismissed the newspaper’s argument that Adblock Plus was interfering in a contract readers were entering into with the newspaper that included accepting ads,” according to the Guardian.

The British newspaper also reported that Adblock Plus spokesperson Ben Williams said the ruling showed the court viewed ad blocking as a challenge and opportunity rather than a threat. “We know that the transition from print to online is still a huge challenge. But we view ad blocking much like the court: as an opportunity, or a challenge, to innovate.”

Created in 2006, the free Adblock Plus extension has been downloaded more than 300 million times, and as Rosenwald wrote for the CJR, it has “become the Internet’s advertising sheriff.”

But publishers are taking a stand and fighting back against ad blockers and its creators. In April, 17 newspaper publishing companies, who are also Newspaper Association of America members, sent a “cease and desist” letter to Brave, a browser created by Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla. The new browser, which announced its launch earlier this year, has ad blocking software built into it and replaces ads with their own. The 17 companies represented more than 1,200 U.S. newspapers, including the McClatchy Co., the New York Times Co. and the Washington Post.

“Brave’s proposed business model crosses legal and ethical boundaries, and should be viewed as illegal and deceptive by the courts, consumers and those who value the creation of content,” NAA CEO David Chavern said in a press release.

As more people download ad block software, it should not only prompt publishers to create better Web experiences, but also remind readers the power of print. Audiences are getting tired of being bombarded on their social media streams and their mobile devices. What was once known as Big Brother is now called Big Data. Publishers have more access to information about their readers and advertisers and that can cause privacy and trust issues. Now that your devices can leave digital footprints for marketers, you’re more vulnerable to an onslaught of annoying ads that will follow you around each Web page you visit. It’s not surprising the usage of ad blockers continues to grow each year.

“It’s Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms. Google has the Web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today,” said Nilay Patel in a recent article on The Verge.

It’s pretty ironic that the biggest treat to digital advertising now is another digital product; technology that was created to combat other technology. It’s tech versus tech, and newspaper publishers shouldn’t have to choose a side. What they need to do is create their own defensive force—all they need to do is look at their print product to find their best weapon.

Slowing It Down

Earlier I said this digital fatigue can be blamed on the 24/7 news cycle or our constant stream of social media updates, but I believe it can also be attributed to our addiction to the Internet. With our smartphones and other mobile devices at our fingertips, it’s easier to stay distracted.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece “Addicted to Distraction,” Tony Schwartz wrote: “The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’ Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect…Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.”

So, how do we stop our cups from spilling over? Unplugging from the Internet won’t work, not when it’s integral for publishers to reach readers on digital platforms, but there is something out there called “slow journalism.” Take a look at Delayed Gratification, a London-based print magazine. The name says it all. Delayed Gratification is published every three months and “revisits the news after the dust has settled to give the final analysis on the stories that mattered,” according to its website (

The news cycle doesn’t show any signs of slowing down though, and before you can even say “hashtag,” readers have already moved on to the latest headline. The reality is readers are looking to Facebook and Twitter for the latest bits of news, and once they receive that, they should look to newspapers to examine and investigate the news they’re reading to find out who is telling the truth and who is just blowing hot air.

“People want to step away from the white noise, wanting something a little more nourishing and in-depth and a little less throwaway,” Rob Orchard, Delayed Gratification co-founder and editorial director, told The Drum.

For example, during one Friday afternoon in April, #watermelon was a trending topic on Twitter. Why? Because more than half a million people were watching two BuzzFeed employees on Facebook Live try to make a watermelon explode with rubber bands. At the time of this report, the watermelon explosion video had more than 5 million views and the number will most likely climb. Media outlets from Mashable to CNBC jumped on the watermelon experiment, reporting on the social phenomenon. Was it just a case of slow news day or the fact that, according to CNBC, the feed is now the most-watched livestream in Facebook history enough to make it newsworthy?


What’s Old is New Again

With the recent popularity of movie reboots, TV show revivals, and reunion concert tours, can the power of nostalgia also be applied to print? After all, record players and Polaroid cameras are cool again especially among younger consumers.

For many print publications, brand reorganization is still a major key to its success. In 2012, Newsweek magazine announced it was ceasing its print product, but when the company was sold to IBT Media in 2013, the new owners decided to resurrect the print magazine a year later as a “premium…boutique product,” editor-in-chief Jim Impoco told the New York Times in an interview.

The strategy seems to have paid off. International Business News reported Newsweek made its first-ever profit in Europe, Middle East and Africa at the end of 2015. IBT Media attributed the profit to a 90 percent surge in revenue, and advertising revenues jumped 327 percent year-on-year due to the increase of print and digital advertising as well as a growth in subscriptions.

In an interesting move, Newsweek announced earlier this year it was dropping its paywall, but not its digital subscriptions model. “The general strategy is to open up and allow folks the ability to experience and really enjoy the journalism that’s happening on Newsweek,” IBT media chief marketing officer Mitchell Caplan told Ad Age.

So, the question is will newspapers become a “premium, boutique product” as was the case with Newsweek? And even though more newspapers are contemplating whether or not to reduce its print schedule, will more consumers flock to print again after getting inundated with the likes of Google Glass, Oculus Rift, and Apple Smartwatch (and their hefty price tags)?

Returning to print shouldn’t be seen as taking a step back. Many readers still rely heavily on the print edition. A Pew Research Center study found that around half of newspaper readers in three U.S. metropolitan cities (Denver, Colo., Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa) only read in print.

With the saturation of news, the toxicity of online harassment, and the amount of poor Web experiences, readers will soon want to come back to print. This resurgence must take place if we want to keep print around for many more years, and publishers can accomplish that by immersing readers—not with virtual reality headsets—but with ink on their hands.

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10 thoughts on “As Digital Fatigue Sets In, Readers are Waking Up to Newspapers

  • May 2, 2016 at 7:53 am

    The local paper has no real news, is poorly edited, is right-wing on economic issues and left-wing socially, and is full of bible-belt crap. It is mostly ads and the “McPaper” USA Today section. It is also overpriced.

  • May 2, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Very informative. Thank you. I read this on my smart phone, for free, and free of ads. What’s the business model that supports all the work put into writing and distributing his article.

  • May 2, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Each individual publication will have to design it’s own way into profitability, it may be by moving product emphasis back to print, and using web and mobile sites as special purpose multimedia and marketing sites, or by cutting the print tether all together and going to a low overhead digital product serving younger readers while hoping older readers jump aboard the digital bandwagon.

    This is a discussion that’s been going on for nearly 20-years, and not one newspaper or its corporate owner has found a good way to support their print and digital resources without gutting their newsrooms, and virtually decimating their readership.

    Where does journalism go from here? Most American newspapers are just shadows of once great local institutions.

  • May 2, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    I don’t want to subscribe monthly to your publication when I usually read less than 10 of your stories. I am more than willing to give you my credit card information and let you track my reading if you let me pay a la carte (micropayments).
    Just give me static ads and I’ll even put up with them.
    (Guess what – I used an adblocker for decades of reading print newspapers. It’s called not looking at them).

  • May 6, 2016 at 10:31 am

    A wide variety of strung-together factoids and a few logical trains of thought in this piece, but the headline completely oversells. The words “I hope” or “I’d like to think” should be inserted before “readers are waking up to newspapers.” There is nothing to support that claim in the article, nothing that counters or even seriously reinterprets all the stats showing continued newspaper audience decline. Using Newsweek as an example of a turnaround print success is a reach — nothing against a historic publication and dedicated staff struggling to push the boulder uphill. And it’s a total non sequitur deriving “digital fatigue” from the rise of ad-blocking. Where’s that line of reasoning even come from? Hooked by the headline, I was really intrigued to learn something valid. It’s like I was fooled into answering a telemarketing call. I wouldn’t even bother leaving a comment except this is E&P, where I expect more cogent stuff. I’d rewrite it if I were you. Or at least clearly present it as a thought piece. No offense.

  • May 12, 2016 at 11:23 am

    The free-distribution print area has not taken the same hit as paid circulation products… for obvious reasons. The internet has trained us that you should never have to pay for information. Well… we’ve been giving our humble little Auto Expo magazine away for nearly 20 years. No one is ever going to buy our cow….. Have we added internet? Of course. But our core product is still the printed magazine, and we still print over 100 pages a week and put it in as many hands as ever. Newspapers could possibly shore up their paid products my maintaining a healthy inventory of free to the public products alongside. Certain genre’s like ours… where the advertising is the content…. are tailor made for free rack distribution. People will always pick up something to read while they wait for a pizza.

  • May 29, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Great article. Newspaper and print will have a resurgence because of all the reasons you discussed. In addition, in general, digital content also has a growing credibility problem. You can’t believe everything you read online. Local newspapers (print) have a higher trust value. Also, radio will eventually experience the same “ad blocker” dilemma. Currently, on my 2016 vehicle I have a control button on the steering wheel that allows me to instantaneously eliminate all commercials. The best feature on the car!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • June 8, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Readers may be “waking up” to print, but more journalists write for online products, not print products. So I’m not sure what this all means, except perhaps that readers can have it all, if they want. Newspapers should be happy that readers want them at all these days, especially since the profit model that works still largely resides on the print side. Maybe it’s not “digital fatigue” but, rather, the realization that much of digital content represents “inferior goods,” to which the industry’s diverse-revenue-streams mantra will attest. Finally, I would like to think that this says the audience’s search for quality continues, and until we realize that the spotlight’s on what constitutes news, we’ll all pretty much be “fatigued.”


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