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.