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Does the Newspaper Have a Future?

What is the future of the newspaper?

The Bad: the “evening paper” was killed off in the ’70s and ’80s. The circulation of morning papers has dropped annually since 1987, Sunday papers since 1990. For example, the Washington Post has seen average daily circulation drop from 779,898 to 709,500 in the past five years.

The Good: virtually all papers have established strong sites on the Internet, most with free-access models (with registration) supported by advertising, making their reach broader than ever. (Some, the NY Times for example, charge for access to “archive” stories, those older than 7 days; and some special interest publications like the Wall Street Journal charge for access to most of their stories, though their Opinion Journal is free).

The Good: Readership of the websites is strong and growing and Internet advertising is at its highest sales level ever. Internet ad spending in the first six months of 2004 was 40 percent higher than in the comparable period in 2003, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. The New York Times’ website became profitable for the first time in ’03; the Washington Post’s did the same in ’04.

The Bad: The revenue gap. For the first three quarters of 2004, the Washington Post booked $433 million in ad revenue, Washingtonpost.com reported $45 million in revenue over the same period. Internet advertising accounts for only 3 percent of total ad spending each year.

The Good: More people have more access to more information in a more timely manner than ever before.

The Bad: They aren’t much willing to pay for it, directly anyway.

The Good: These are still early days for the Internet’s free or almost-free model and Internet readership will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, with ad sales rising along with readership. In addition, Website ads are still undervalued and this will inevitably change over time. Internet ads can “talk back” to advertisers, telling how many times the ad has been seen, and with registration, the demographics and location of the viewer. As ads become more and more targeted (think search engine ads), this information becomes more and more valuable.

The Bad: many younger people have no use for the physical paper, its bulk, its lack of interactivity, its stasis, the time it takes to absorb.

The Good: the downward trend of physical paper readership will bottom out because there is value in the portability, convenience, durability, and the pure tactility of the physical paper that the Internet will never replace (just like books).

And, as more and more people come to value information and reasoned interpretation through its relatively free and wide availability on cable TV and the Internet, they will also come to more highly appreciate the reliability, quality and geographical applicability of information and opinion available in newspapers, both physical and online.

This is a difficult transitional time – those who can hold out will prosper greatly in the long run.

About Eric Olsen

  • http://ayulittleone.blogspot.com/ Ayu

    Sounds pretty grim to me. Any idea of how a freelance journalist could survive through this difficult transitional time, Eric?

  • Eric Olsen

    very good and troubling question, although freelance writing has always been an exceptionally difficult way to make a living. As there are more words written, their individual value seems to be reduced, at least for now. For generalists, the blog route can be viable if you can generate enough of a readership to reach critical mass to draw advertisers and/or generate affiliate sales.

    For those who wish to remain in the MSM, specialization seems to be the best bet: having expertise in a given field as well the the writing ability to convey it.

    But none of it is easy.

  • http://ayulittleone.blogspot.com/ Ayu

    I’ve got your points. But then, in the end writers won’t get too much except from the advertisement. I mean lately e-book is also becoming more and more popular. Even my husband is getting lazy to buy printed books, since he could get e-books with the same title for free from some sites, such as this one. Perhaps it is time to look for another job for me lol.

  • Eric Olsen

    there are still plenty of publications throughout the world that need professionally written content, but there is an awful lot of competition, which is why I say specialization is probably a writer’s best bet. Best of luck, Ayu!!

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Pretty decent all around post. Reading the title you quickly cornered right on the point I was going to rip the writer for if they didn’t mention it – that “old media” sites are, somewhere real close to 8 of the Top 10 highest traffic sites on the Internet.

    And, yes, there will be a leveling off of the slide for physical newspapers for the reasons you state. And, despite many assertions, this isn’t entirely the fault of newspapers so much as it is the logical result of new technologies.

    Here’s the rub most people fail to understand about newspaper pay sites, which you also touched on.

    If you charge for more than 90 percent of your online conent each online susbcriber counts toward your physical circulation. So the NYT sells 1.2 million copies per day. If they charged for all their online content (or 90 percent) each subscriber would also count toward that total.

    However, because that site – and most others newspaper sites are free – and their content remains free – their circulation numbers are going down quicker. This is true even though their overall readership, including print and online, is undoubtedly up.

    To a much smaller degree this effects TV news in the same way. But I’m much more ignorant of TV news as local news is a poorly funded laughing stock and I can count on one hand the number of times I have watched Brokaw, Jennings and Rather, combined.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks – that’s interesting about the 90% rule, I didn’t know that

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Did you read the comments by that Vanity Fair columnist recently? I forget his name. Anyway, he made the point that the Wall Street Journal had not helped itself by charging, that it had effectively put the paper out of the loop with most readers. Everyone — certainly everyone here at Blogcritics, or most — gets a lot of their day to day news content from the New York Times or the Washington Post or any of the on-line dailies. All WSJ has to offer the 99.9 percent of computer users who don’t subscribe are their cranky editorial opinions — which is a shame, since they’re opinions are about as prdictable as Rush Limbaugh’s, and their front-page journalism is superbly reported and written.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    “local news is a poorly funded laughing stock”

    Yes, but a highly-profitable laughing stock that has serious viewership…

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    No it doesn’t have great numbers of viewers RJ. It’s there mostly to fulfill the network’s requirements for news. It is profitable – but only because it’s so cheap to produce and poorly funded. Networks and franchises barely acknowledge it and would gladly do away with it if they could.

    There are a couple of exceptions. KOMO and KING 5 in Seattle come to mind.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    They would NOT “gladly do away with it” for the simple fact that it is HIGHLY profitable…

  • http://www.kolehardfacts.blogspot.com Mike Kole

    Launching a new newspaper is a frighteningly expensive proposition, which makes it enormously unlikely that competitors will arise in the one-paper cities. It’s hard to fight the money established papers owned by chains like Gannett can pour into crushing a newcomer.

    The suburbs have exciting competition, however, in many locations, as two older, smaller local papers compete to become the dominant read in a suddenly larger sprawled county.

    I happen to live in one such sprawl county, and two papers are tearing it up, acting like real newspapers, covering actual news! They go to council meetings and report on government business. It’s very refreshing, and a reminder of the shame that is the one-paper town scenario.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Kole is Korrect.

    That’s why they’re fighting so hard to keep two papers in Seattle. One that goes, it’s gone forever.

    Trouble is the “family-owned” paper in this case is the one who wants to end the partnership. Both are great newspapers in th efinest of traditionals

  • Eric Olsen

    Rodney, great point about the WSJ – it doesn’t exist from a news angle for we in the Internet.

    Good poitn about locals papers, Mike, although even most of them are part of chains: competition is good.

  • http://www.kingofbad.com KOB

    A solid analysis that rings true. My newspaper career began at p.m. newspapers. The changes have been brutal. But I see two things: First, the print job declines are being offset, to some extent, by Web-only reporting jobs. CNET, MarketWatch, etc, as well as jobs in narrowly focused publications, the computer/technical trade press, for instance.

    There is less interest in the printed product, for sure. But the need for professionally assembled local news content, the most threatened, remains. Bloggers ad color and context and Craigs List is fun and useful, but communities demand and need accountability and reliability in news gathering. I don’t see that changing, even as newspapers stumble over an effective business model to keep their newsrooms afloat.

  • Eric Olsen

    excellent points KOB, there is work to be done and as a result to be had, but it’s never easy, especially in a period of transition

  • http://www.scoopstories.typepad.com Scott Butki

    What he said.

    Good post, Eric.

    Temple, interesting comments at #5.