NEWSPAPERS: SHORT TERM, GOOD; LONG TERM, DIM

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By: Greg Mitchell

The State of the Newspaper Industry



So here’s the long and the short of it: Looking to the future, at the dawn of a new century, top newspaper executives remain confident in the short term but extremely nervous about long-term trends. Yet, if they play their cards right ? and raise their sites ? they might yet turn their greatest fear into their salvation.



A new, exclusive survey of 565 newspaper executives for E&P reveals that 79% believe their industry is very or somewhat healthy today. Asked what they think it will be like in 10 years, however, only 49% feel it will be healthy. Just two years ago, 77% projected good health 10 years hence.



What has happened to muddle the long-term outlook? In a word (or two): the Internet. More than 50% of the respondents (editors and publishers, as well as advertising, circulation, and marketing directors) identify it as their prime concern, fearing they may get trapped by the Net. In contrast, only 10% or less dread a possible decline in readership or advertising.



Yet, at the same time, these executives named the Web as the industry’s most promising source of new revenues, outracing their hopes for increased advertising and development of niche products. So the Net may now “taketh” from newspapers but one day “giveth” to them in return.



The new survey is the sixth “State of the Industry” study conducted by American Opinion Research (AOR), a Princeton, N.J.-based consulting firm that has more than 250 newspaper clients across the country. Anthony M. Casale, chairman of AOR, who conducted the survey for E&P, calls these short-term/long-term findings surprising, “but a lot of it has to do with uncertainty about the Net,” he explains, “and if and how they will be able to handle it in future.



“These are reasonable fears. Newspaper people know enough now to know they don’t know quite how to handle it.”



No clear and present danger



As most editors and publishers see it, tomorrow can wait. They expect the first year of the 2000s to be a memorable one in more ways than one:



Exactly half predict stronger profits, and less than 10% anticipate a decline. And the people who should know most about this, the publishers, are even more optimistic, with nearly two-thirds of them looking forward to a higher profit margin, even after several good years.



These glowing numbers are virtually duplicated in the advertising realm, with 50% expecting ad growth this year and only 8% fearing shrinkage. The executives are especially bullish about classified and local ads (two-thirds expect an increase in these areas). Those who predict growth expect, on average, a 6.2% gain in linage for 2000.



Completing the rosy short-term picture is a surprising -? some might say, inexplicable ? finding: six in 10 respondents predict a gain in circulation for their newspaper, despite a general downturn in the industry. Just 13% expect a decline. A clear majority of circulation directors, who presumably know what they’re talking about, make this boast ? though one wonders if it is mainly wishful thinking. “The results surprised me,” Casale says, “because undeniably a lot of places are just not growth markets.”



For complete survey results, please see the Jan. 3 issue of Editor & Publisher magazine.



Greg Mitchell (gregm@mediainfo.com) is interim features editor for Editor & Publisher magazine.

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