Business of News: The Future of Newspapers is Found in its Past

If we all had the gift of prescience, we would have: bought property along the California coast 60 years ago; purchased Apple stock in 1998 when it was $1 a share; and bet the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series in 2016.

But none of us—including those in the newspaper industry—have that gift. It is enlightening, however, to study the predictions we made about the industry over the past 20 years and see how those proposed solutions have held up.

It’s 2000, and futurist Frank Feather predicted the top news sites of 2010:


That’s not bad, but, of course, a lot has changed since 2010. Only the New York Times cracks the 2018 Top 5. The others in rank order are Yahoo! News, Google News, HuffPost and CNN.

Feather thought news content sites would rule, but that has not held up as aggregators own the top two spots. What if we had seen that coming and created our own newspaper industry aggregated site?

It’s 2003. More than half the country has the internet at home. Journalism is stinging from the revelations that Jayson Blair of the New York Times has fabricated stories and quotes and plagiarized his work from other newspapers. There is no YouTube (introduced in 2005), no Twitter (2006) and no iPhone (2007), but a book called “TechTV’s Catalog of Tomorrow” makes some correct predictions about where we would be in 15 years. (The book is a collection of essays by futurists, visionaries and technology commentators.) Matt Novak wrote about this in a 2013 Gizmodo article.

  • Citizen journalism would be big and it would improve the quality of journalism. The Catalog describes a scenario in which an earthquake in South Korea is reported by video on a citizen’s cellphone and transmitted to a blogger (although they still called them web logs). From there, collective activity adds a GPS overlay and several people add—and others correct— information and misinformation. “The collective efforts of a loosely joined group of amateurs can complement, and occasionally trump, the most powerful news media organizations.”
  • But even The Catalog knew that citizen journalism has its limits. “Quality is extremely varied, and insights are often couched in political rants and questionable rhetoric.”
  • “No single news organization can compete with huge wired communities. Perhaps they’ll even put ‘bloggers’ in their employ.” 2008-09

It’s 2009 and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet begins hearings on Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s “Newspaper Revitalization Act.” Sen. John Kerry’s opening remark: “Newspapers look like an endangered species.”

The hearings attract a variety of speakers—some stubborn, some specious, some opportunistic and one who is downright prescient. And the bill went nowhere.

Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience at Google, correctly noted that Google creates traffic to newspaper websites. But she optimistically predicted Google AdSense would create a financial windfall for publishers. Instead, publishers quickly realized the windfall fell to Google while they made pennies.

David Simon, former reporter at the Baltimore Sun, said, “High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else.” He mocked citizen journalism, but called the non-profit model “intriguing” and asked that newspapers be able to protect their copyright from aggregators so that the money could be used to create subscription services and protect the industry. Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News made a similar argument (along with asking for tax relief for publishers).

Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, suggested that not-for-profits, some even connected to the government such as the National Endowment for the Arts, could help train and incubate the skills and careers in new media forums. He was not far off and there are several such programs today.

Arianna Huffington asked not how do we save newspapers but how do we save journalism?  Huffington never made a blazing economic success of the Huffington Post (although she made a nice profit off the sale), but its readership growth is phenomenal. Perhaps her most prescient statement of the hearing was: “It’s important to remember that the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers.”

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at

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2 thoughts on “Business of News: The Future of Newspapers is Found in its Past

  • November 20, 2018 at 6:50 am

    The simple fact is that the future of journalism is the future of newspapers, and that will only happen if publishers’ can be convince that they have a future and stop dismantling newspapers in the name of getting what they can while they can. The jury is in and, as anyone could have predicted two decades ago, the future of the web is not in news but entertainment. News, even news aggregation, is a sideshow with cat videos and memes outdoing news in the pursuit of eyeballs, a hundred to one. Chasing the future of news on the Web is the road to ruin.
    However, the business of printing that plain old “dead tree” newspaper remains strong. Printed newspapers cost exactly the same as they did a century ago (not adjusted for inflation, exactly the same) with technology over the last half century driving down the cost of composition and capital investment at a rate far greater than the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, printed newspapers have a business model which extracts far greater value out of an economic region, such as a city, than electronic media. Admittedly, the loss of advertising to the web, especially classified advertising, was a body blow, but making money on classifieds only became possible in the last quarter century and its loss only takes away what was never really a durable value, to begin with.
    So, how do you save newspapers and journalism? Look to the past, and I mean a century ago or more.
    First, focus on writing and not timeliness…newspapers lost the “first with the news” battle to radio in the 1920s and never got it back. Thoughtful and literary writing will always attract a following. So, make sure the newspaper has this in abundance.
    Second, cut the cost to the reader. Nobody has ever wanted to pay a lot for the news, not in the 1830s, when the “penny paper” was born to serve the mass reader, and certainly not now. A cost of 25 cents per copy daily and 50 cents on Sunday and $8 per month for a subscription is more than adequate. The money is in the ads, anyway. So, lowering readership with high per-copy and subscription costs is a fool’s errand.
    Third, bulk up. More pages and bigger pages give potential readers the sense they are getting something for their money. Sure, it costs, but at only a penny a page per copy, the added cost of getting big is easily offset by the expected gain from the added revenue a bigger newspaper would draw.
    Fourth, serve the community. When was the last time you heard of a newspaper taking the lead on anything, let alone anything with tangible benefit to the readers. The last time newspaper reporters and editors jumped up was when the President gored their ox. I understand why they were upset with the President’s rhetoric, but as long as newspapers serve themselves and not their readers, will it truly be a surprise when their readers don’t care?


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