A New Era
How newspapers will suvive in the Digital Age
By Kevin Uhrich 07/17/2014
Today’s media landscape is far different from the one the Pasadena Weekly occupied just five years ago — let alone three decades back. It is so different in fact that hundreds of newspapers and magazines have folded since 2009 and the advent of social media. And those that have survived the onslaught of MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and a host of other networks that instantaneously deliver news, photos and even videos to and from handheld telephones have retooled or downsized dramatically.
We pretty well know where we have been as a local news organization, but where are we going? Will there be a Pasadena Weekly — or any newspapers — in the next 30 years?
In the world of dailies, all reliable indicators tell us “daily newspapers are in a deepening downward spiral,” as reported by Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), with other industry oracles saying as much in less succinct ways.
Alternative weekly papers, much like PW, aren’t in much better shape. Only these types of publications are a somewhat different animal, and the future isn’t as clear cut when it comes to their survival in these evolving markets.
“For the nation’s alternative weekly newspapers, 2012 proved to be another year of contraction and churn as the industry sought new ways to build better revenue models,” wrote Monica Anderson, Emily Guskin, and Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). “Some papers engaged in substantial experimentation on the digital side in 2012, but at this point, monetizing the online business remains largely an elusive goal.”
Over the last two decades, the Pew Research Center reported, the number of daily American newspapers steadily decreased. “From 1,611 in 1990, the number fell to 1,387 in 2009, a decline of 14 percent,” Pew found. In 2011, as many as 1,350 dailies were likely still being published. But “launches of new dailies are extremely rare,” says Pew.
From 1990 to 2007, with 1,456 newspapers published, there was a drop of 205, or 12 percent, from 1990. That loss increased to 16 percent in 2009, with another 69 daily papers failing. Pew’s research indicates that there has been a drop of between 14 and 21 dailies a year.
With extremely few new papers starting up — with an exception being the Los Angeles Register, launched in April by Orange County Register co-owner and Publisher Aaron Kushner — at a 3 percent yearly rate of decline US daily newspapers would number 994.43 by 2022, a 26.3 percent drop from 2012. At a 5 percent per year loss, with no new start-ups, there would be 992.46 daily newspapers in the US by 2018, a 26.5 percent decrease from 2012, and a more than 40 percent fall from 1990. If newspaper closures total 10 percent or more a year, and they likely could with the explosive proliferation of new communications technology, it is a near certainty that daily newspapers as we know them will disappear by 2020.
When it comes to jobs, employment of full-time professional editorial staff peaked at 56,900 in 1989, according to Pew. It then fell 27 percent through 2010. The newsroom census, conducted by the American Society of News Editors, also includes a look at minority employment, which grew from 1,900 in 1978 to 7,400 in 2006. But that number, Pew reported, has also since fallen, to 5,300 at the end of 2010.
Nowhere But Up
In “Newspapers: Building Digital Revenues Proves Painfully Slow,” Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, and Guskin, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell of PEJ, point out these are perilous times for newspapers, which “are neither dying nor assured of a stable future,” relying more and more on digital technology to somehow rescue the industry. But that also does not appear to be happening, at least as quickly as some might like.
“If this transformation were going well, one would expect the new revenues to get closer each year to replacing ad revenues lost in print,” the researchers wrote. But that hasn’t happened. In 2011, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), online advertising was up $207 million industry-wide compared to 2010. Print advertising, though, was down $2.1 billion. So the print losses were greater than the digital gains by 10 to 1, the reporting team found. “That was even worse than a 7-to-1 ratio of print losses to digital gains in 2010. And during 2008 and 2009 steep declines in print were accompanied by small losses in online too,” according to the NAA.
“It took 50 years to go from about $20 billion in annual newspaper print ad revenue in 1950 (adjusted for inflation) to $63.5 billion in 2000, and then only 12 years to go from $63.5 billion back to less than $20 billion in 2012. Even when online advertising is added to the print ads, the combined total spending for print and online advertising this year will still only be about $22.4 billion, less than the $22.47 billion spent on print advertising in 1953,” according to economist Mark Perry, as reported by LAObserved.com.
“Print ad revenues totaled $19 billion in 2012 (covering national, retail, and classified), which compares with $56.5 billion in 2004. That’s not a drop, it’s a free-fall — and the revenues will never come back,” wrote veteran newsman and KPPC contributor Mark Lacter at LAObserved. The much-respected and beloved Lacter passed away in November at the age of 59.
At the local level, newspapers are no better off. Sixteen months before Kushner launched the LA Register, in early 2013 reporters and editors in the Times Community News network — at the time including the Pasadena Sun and the La Cañada Valley Sun, as well as the Glendale News-Press and the Burbank Leader — were moved from their respective offices to the LA Times building in downtown Los Angeles. The Times eventually closed the Pasadena paper and soon stopped rack distribution of the others.
What role will print media play in the lives of people in the foreseeable future?
It’s hard to say.
“As print shrinks, alternative weeklies have been slower to transition to digital, but 2011 saw the industry make more progress in this direction. Many papers have added another layer to its digital presence, not only through static sites, but also engaging readers through blogs, social media and mobile platforms,” wrote Anderson, Guskin and Rosenstiel of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
“Mobile and social media could play to the strengths of alternative weeklies. The sector has long distinguished itself by the voice and point of view of its writers, something that fits well with new media,” they wrote. “In addition, many of the publications see themselves as a ‘go to’ source for information on restaurants, concerts and other local events. Providing this kind of information on mobile devices is a natural opportunity for these brands.”
Many alternative papers, research shows, were also struggling over the first few years of this decade, only not nearly as much as dailies.
“Alternative weeklies experienced a number of changes … from shifts within the main trade organization, to major staff upheavals at popular papers, and an ever-increasing focus on digital media and revenue,” the Pew researchers found. Unfortunately, 2012, “was also a year that saw a double-digit decline in circulation at key papers. After only a modest decline of 0.59 percent in 2010, 2011 had a 13.8 percent drop-off in the circulation of the top 20 papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Formerly known as the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the organization, which only ever accepted print products as members, changed its name to accommodate today’s new realities of online publishing.
Writing for journalism.about.com, Tony Rogers found that newspapers aren’t dead, just unable to adequately adapt to new realities and generate profit from their Web sites.
“Pundits have been predicting the demise of newspapers ever since the first radio broadcast crackled onto the airwaves. When TV came along, many felt certain the boob tube represented the nail in print journalism’s coffin,” Rogers writes. “Now the prophets of the digital media age are doing much the same thing. Online news, they say, is bound to replace print any minute now. Most recently some academics at USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future did a study and decided that newspapers will be dead in five years.”
Rogers quotes Jeffrey Cole, the center’s director, saying “we believe that the only print newspapers that will survive will be at the extremes of the medium — the largest and the smallest.”
According to Cole, only The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal will continue in print form among the nation’s top dailies, along with local weeklies, Rogers reported.
According to the Web site newspaperdeathwatch.com, some major publications have adapted by cutting frequency of publication or adopting hybrid online/print or online-only models. Among those papers are the Christian Science Monitor, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Detroit News/Free Press, Harrisburg’s Patriot-News, New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, Portland’s Oregonian, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
True, it’s bad, but …
In its annual State of the Media 2014 report, the Pew Journalism Project focused not on the gloom and doom of the past few years, but rather a new “level of energy” and “perhaps hope” for the industry.
In 2013 and early 2014, “Digital players have exploded onto the news scene, bringing technological knowhow and new money and luring top talent,” wrote Pew’s Amy Mitchell.
“The year also brought more evidence than ever that news is a part of the explosion of social media and mobile devices, and in a way that could offer opportunity to reach more people with news than ever before. Half of Facebook users get news there even though they did not go there looking for it. And the Facebook users who get news at the highest rates are 18-to-29-year-olds. The same is true for the growth area of online video. Half of those who watch some kind of online video watch news videos. Again, young people constitute the greatest portion of these viewers,” Mitchell wrote. “Accompanying this momentum is the question of what it adds up to within the full scope of news that consumers receive. … Our first-ever accounting found roughly 5,000 full-time professional jobs at nearly 500 digital news outlets, most of which were created in the past half dozen years. But the vast majority of bodies producing original reporting still comes from the newspaper industry.”
Rogers isn’t as quick as others to swallow the “all newspapers will die” Kool-Aide, pointing out newspapers have always been targets for extinction by the latest communications revolution.
“Predictions come and go. Yet newspapers are still with us,” Rogers wrote. “True, newspaper circulation has been declining for years. True, more people get their news online than ever before. But anyone who’s studied the newspaper biz for more than five minutes knows that most print journalism revenue — something like 90 percent — still comes from display advertising, the ads in the printed paper.
“Online ad revenue is increasing but still represents a fraction of the money that papers get from printed ads. News outlets can’t charge much for online ads because studies have shown that most people ignore them. And, odd as it may sound, many newspapers are still very profitable businesses. So until someone comes up with a way of making more money from online news, print journalism is going to be around for a good long while, because that’s where the money is.”
How long will papers be around? Rogers asks.
“Who knows? I say at least another 20 years. Of course,” he wrote, “I could be wrong.”