Why He Walked Out « PREV | NEXT »: Christian Science Monitor Sets an Example to Follow

October 27, 2008

Print Isn't Gone Yet, but It's Not Coming Back

Saturday afternoon, I saw one of the stranger things I've seen on the subway in a while: The guy across the aisle was reading the front section of the previous Sunday's New York Times, the one with Henry Cisneros on page 1. There was a subscription label on his paper, and I thought maybe he'd been out of town, somewhere without Internet access, and come back to a stack of NYTs. What was odd to me wasn't so much that he was catching up on such old news; it was that he'd chosen to catch up on paper (which, granted, is the only way to read a newspaper in the subway), not online.

That's how drastically reading habits, and our notion of how long news is fresh, have changed in the past decade or so -- and yet Editor & Publisher starts a story today on the latest newspaper circulation figures this way: "For those holding out for some improvement in print circulation, this morning brings disappointment." Honestly? Was anyone holding out hope that print circulation would go up? With its finger on the fading pulse of the American newspaper industry, E&P ought to know.

If, in fact, the powers that be at metro dailies have been holding out -- if they are quite that deep in denial -- that would explain a lot about most papers' utter failure to adapt to the way people are getting their news these days. The only direction those numbers are going to move is down, and they're going to move down faster in a shell-shocked economy that has even ABC News canceling its print subscriptions. And where have ABC staffers been directed to read their newspapers and magazines instead? Online, of course.

Newspaper websites, unsurprisingly, are seeing ever more traffic: Online readership in the third quarter of 2008 was up 15.8 percent over the same period last year, even if online ad spending isn't keeping pace. With advertisers pulling back everywhere, papers may have no choice but to try to wait out a decline. In the meantime, their survival strategy continues to rely heavily on throwing staff overboard, or inviting staff to throw themselves overboard in buyouts, as if having a lower-quality product to sell is going to be the key to financial success.

Common sense suggests that the key to financial success is a shift in mindset and allocation of resources. The eyes are online, and more will migrate there, albeit to publications that haven't cut so deep that they have nothing left to offer. I like reading a physical paper as much as the next person, and I'm as susceptible to sentimentality about papers as most journalists are. But newspapers endanger their own survival by getting bogged down in the medium when it's the message that matters.

Although advertisers might be excused for thinking otherwise, particularly given publications' moaning about print circulation, the readers are still there; many of them have simply changed the way they read. It's past time for newspapers to stop defining themselves as primarily print publications and make a strong case to advertisers that a large chunk of the audience they want to reach is online, reading the paper.
October 27, 2008 11:29 AM | | Comments (0)

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