Speculation about print’s demise began more than a decade earlier, but in 2009, publications started to make news of their own when their printing presses fell silent. It’s true that newspaper ad revenues are still on the downward slope overall, but there’s promise in what’s happening with digital. Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2015 reported, “For the past five years, newspaper ad revenue has maintained a consistent trajectory: print ads have produced less revenue (down 5 percent), while digital ads have produced more revenue (up 3 percent)—but not enough to make up for the fall in print revenue.”
Concerned by the slowing pace of print advertising, combined with the costs of print production and distribution—yet hopeful for what “electronic media” might afford them—a few brave publishers bet their stashes on the digital future.
Taking a Look Back
It was March 2009 when Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer—at 146 years old—announced that it would no longer print. At the time of the announcement, Frank Bennack Jr., Hearst CEO, noted in a press release, “Our goal now is to turn seattlepi.com into the leading news and information portal in the region.” The New York Times’ William Yardley and Richard Perez-Pena reported that the newsroom staff went from 165 to 20 as a result.
And more publishers followed suit.
By 2012, MLive Media Group’s MLive.com—a cooperative, multi-title digital venture—was grabbing the attention of 2.7 million unique visitors a month. The company began to restructure its team, as well as its print and distribution operations. Home delivery got pared down while the website got spruced up. Some of its former print publications—like the Business Review: West Michigan—were wholly absorbed into the site as “digital-only” content.
It’s not that print went away. The newspapers from which MLive.com derives its content are still being printed, but those are in addition to the website, e-editions, e-newsletters and mobile apps that the publisher is also producing.
By 2013, MLive Media Group said that it was reaching more than 4 million online users each month. In its nimble, digital-first form, it makes a compelling case for being “a (true) marketing partner,” capable of helping advertisers identify opportunities, target audiences, create the creative, and promote their brands with messages that carry exponentially farther than a single piece of newsprint could ever reach.
In 2013, Lloyd’s List stopped printing, after doing so since 1734. Today, the publication lives on in Web, email, and mobile-app forms—$3,250 will get you a one-year, single-member subscription.
And everyone in news recalls when New Orleans’ famed daily The Times-Picayune had its print frequency reduced to a few days a week while more attention turned to developing NOLA.com. In the months following the change, the newspaper reported that its circulation had increased.
Today, print subscribers still choose between Sunday-only, Wednesday-and-Friday-only, or a full three-day subscription that delivers a printed newspaper to their doorsteps on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. More than 560,000 weekly readers rely on the print edition, according to the NOLA Media Group. Nonetheless, the publisher self-defines as a “digitally focused” media organization, and that’s translated to 5.4 million unique monthly visitors to NOLA.com and some 3 million monthly mobile users today.
It’s not only the big-brand, big-city newspapers that are exploring digital opportunities.
Last year, website CollegeMediaMatters.com reported that Franklin & Marshall College’s The College Reporter would no longer be printed. E-editions and email communications, along with the website, took its place. That was preceded by Florida A&M declaring it would no longer publish its student newspaper in print. At Columbia University last year, The Columbia Daily Spectator had its print frequency dialed back.
Knowing when and to what extent student newspapers should shift to digital is “the most pertinent question that student editors and their advisors and professors are wrestling with right now,” said Dan Reimold, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and faculty advisor to the student newspaper, The Hawk. Reimold is also an author of two books on student journalism and publishes CollegeMediaMatters.com covering student publications across the nation.**
There are very few student newspapers that have taken the digital-only approach; rather, there’s a growing interest in “digital-first or digital-friendly” philosophies, Reimold said. Naturally, big-named newspapers from big-named universities had led the charge to digital. They could afford to experiment. And a digital-first student press is still in the experimental phase.
“I think it’s something that we’re trying to figure out versus having solved,” Reimold said. And just like small community newspapers face in the broader news market, smaller college presses have to experiment with limited funds and limited staff. At The Hawk, for example, the newspaper’s social media team may comprise one or two students each semester—a dozen, on average, in total to put out the paper.
But even in this era of digital experimentation and of trial and error, there have been some important revelations. Such as, it’s a mistake to purely associate print with older generations or to assume college students all want hipper, more immediate digital satisfaction. Print is still cool on campus, Reimold said.
Among college journalists there remains a notion that print is somehow more trusted, more esteemed than its digital alternatives, he said. “There are many students holding on to the idea that the tactile product they’re putting out is superior to what they’re doing in digital.”
Earlier this year, Reimold surveyed college press editors and asked them about their newsrooms. He wanted to glean how they’ve changed with all this influx of digital media.
“I wanted to get a sense of the newsroom. Is there still a gathering place? Are there production nights?” he said. “Is everyone getting together to make a plan, from start to finish, to get the paper out? Or is it more a case of everyone being off in their own ‘headquarters,’ in their dorms, doing their own specific things.”
The results indicated that, across the range of presses—from small community colleges to the Ivy Leagues—the newsroom was still considered “essential.” Learning how to make a newspaper—understanding the production process—is still a rich, valuable experience for aspiring media professionals.
The Here and Now
It’s been a calculated risk for publications to “go digital,” and not one of immediate payoffs.
Newsweek also made a big splash for pumping the print brakes in 2012, but recommitted to print in 2014.
When Taloussanomat, a financial newspaper based in Finland went all-digital back in 2007, The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson reported that the publisher did see costs come down by 50 percent, but so did its readership (by 22 percent) and its revenues (by more than 75 percent).
Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, Inc., used the term “mistake” when referring to newspapers that have “jettisoned their print side of the business sooner than they should.” Print will still be around in 50 years, he predicted, but long term? Digital information is the future, he acknowledged.
“Science-fiction is a great predictor of the future, and I don’t see anyone on Star Trek reading a newspaper,” Borrell said. “But I do know that (print) is around now, and it will be in three years, in five years and more. There’s still going to be newspapers around, in print, and people will read them.
“In that business,” Borrell added—meaning print newspapers—“there are leverage-able assets, not the least of which is cash flow. The real trick is being able to manage both businesses—print and digital—without having one damage the other.”
Dave Peterson is general manager at WCPO-Digital in Cincinnati. The Scripps Media “experiment” folded some print newspapers and blended digital newspapers with local broadcast news to create a single digital subscription-based site at WCPO.com.
Peterson noted that the most difficult part about “going digital,” the seeds of which had been planted there in 2008, was the cultural change. And it wasn’t just in Cincinnati where this was happening, he said. “It had to be massive in every newsroom.”
According to Peterson, the mission at WCPO remains constant: “We’re aiming to be the local news and information leader. It’s taking a customer-centric approach to our business. What’s the customer proposition? What news and information do they need, at what time, on what device, in what form? And we intend to give them that, regardless of platform.”
Otherwise, WCPO-Digital’s business model is unprecedented and fluid. “We’re very much in an experimental mode…There’s no model for what we do, and so we experiment every day. But the reasons why we exist—our vision, our mission—has never changed. But how we do it changes every day based on information. Every day, assumptions are turned into to actual data. There’s more and more information available to us every day, and sometimes it challenges those assumptions. That’s always good.”
Truly, every job, every discipline within the news organization has been affected by the advent of digital publishing. Sales, marketing, circulation/audience are more driven by digital data now, and these professionals need to know how to mine it, parse it, and turn it into something actionable. Graphics, production, and IT personnel need to be far more technically skilled, not just in layout and design software, but in terms of programming languages, Web standards, and file and video formats.
Photographers became photojournalists, then videographers, and some are now piloting drones. Editors and reporters are gathering information in new ways as a result. Crowdsourcing wasn’t possible in a pre-digital, print-centric world. The wall between readers and journalists has been obliterated, in favor of “conversations” among digital communities. And telling the story—reporting on even straight-forward news events—requires discernment about where to tell it and how best to communicate it in that platform or medium.
At WCPO, “several dozen people” have been hired in recent years, and they represent a great blend of talented, seasoned journalists and digital, graphics, and tech wizards. They collaborate and learn from one another, Peterson explained, and the result has been that they’re able to creatively use technology and platforms to best tell a story and communicate it visually. That part of the editorial job is measurably more challenging.
“What was once forbidden is now required,” said Peterson. “Things like breaking news online instead of on-air. Things like linking to your competition. You have to play by the new rules of digital platforms.”
Scripps and WCPO have formed an alliance with the Washington Post, which allows WCPO subscribers to access information from the national newspaper. There are links to articles and references to content mentioned in broadcasts. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship, in Peterson’s estimation—made possible by shared digital information.
“It’s a vote for the future of legacy media that Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post,” Peterson said. “My guess is that we see the world in a similar way as it relates to the future of our business.”
News organizations can glean a lot of information by looking at the behaviors of subscribers and the ones who pass by the site. There’s a lot to learn from how they’re using their mobile devices and what content best appeals there.
“Whether at a television station or a newspaper, we need to know that our own consumer habits when we’re at home are the same as our users, our viewers, and our readers,” he said. “We’re all checking our phones every couple of minutes. We’re all getting our news from a variety of sources throughout the day, and that means that when we tune in to our 5 p.m. newscast, or pick up the newspaper the next morning, it’s assumed that we’ve already been made aware of anything big that’s going on. So we have to treat those stories differently on legacy platforms.”
Where the Advertisers Are
“With a Web-only publication, the more valuable content tends to be focused around purchasing. Someone is researching to buy a car or to buy a home,” said Borrell. “They’re researching before buying a digital camera or before going to a restaurant. That’s a flipped business model for newspapers. On the Internet, consumers are much more interested in advertising information, because they’re researching products. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to the Web or to a mobile device to read news or headlines, too, but advertisers are interested in those readers who are ready to purchase.”
This bodes well for newspapers wading into content marketing.
But in the meantime, print advertising is still the bread and the butter.
“Certainly we are still finding our way with regard to mobile and other forms of digital advertising,” said Paul Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times. “But I would also say, from our experience, the lion’s share of advertising remains in print, and the lion’s share of circulation remains in print.
“It’s not that we are willfully ignoring the market place trends,” he added. “But we put emphasis on being creative in print, as well as with our digital efforts, because that’s where much of the money remains.” At Tampa Bay Times, they’re not just sustaining a print model, they’re growing it. When asked for examples of how his company is reinvesting print, Tash said he could tick off numerous examples.
“We have a free daily tabloid, called tbt, in addition to our paid daily broadsheet. It’s an edition that draws heavily on the resources created by the Tampa Bay Times, but it’s created for a much younger audience. It has a very loyal following and has been a contributor to our bottom line.”
Tash also cited its eight-times-a-year glossy magazine, Bay, which he qualified as a targeted advertiser’s dream. Its media kit boasts a circulation of more than 54,000 subscribers. “It’s relatively new for us—five or six years old—but every issue is bigger than the same issue the year before. It’s been a point of real success—again, in print.”
The Tampa Bay Times print edition still boasts more than 1.5 million readers, as the digital audience continues to grow. For Q1 2015, comScore figured TampaBay.com averaged 2,401,000 unique visitors each month.
Tash is equally excited by what’s to come in digital publishing as he is by print. “Absolutely, we have to be creative about the digital efforts, but not to the exclusion of trying to be as smart and interesting, as compelling as we can be in print.”
Divide and conquer?
Borrell expects that media companies committed to print will see the print edition as not just a separate product, but a separate business altogether that needs to be “sustained and nurtured and promoted.”
He also anticipates that print—still a source of cash flow, after all—will help sustain news organizations as they make this transition into a more digitally focused future. He said it resonated with him when he heard a newspaper peer confide at a conference tell him, “We’re making a profit in print so we can get into this new business with digital.”
Conversely, Borrell cited an encounter with an investment banker at the same media conference, who confided that his firm was only interested in seeding media companies that are “throwing everything they’ve got” at building a digital business.
If newspapers are going to follow the ad buys, all signs are pointing toward digital. Nostalgia for print, cultural affinity, and publishing-craft aside, newspapers have to be poised to deliver digital audiences and recoup some of those losses.
** Dan Reimold spoke with E&P before his untimely death in August. We thank Reimold’s valuable contributions to the magazine over the years and for always being a journalism advocate.