The Problem with Print in a Digital Age: A Five-Part Series
|Part I: A Digital Age Dilemma||Part II: Perilous Times for Papers||Part III: Perilous Times for Papers||Part IV: Perilous Times for Papers|
Part I: A DIGITAL AGE DILEMMA
Yes, the Digital Revolution has truly turned modern living on its head. For those of you who can recall what it was like to pound out papers on a manual typewriter, or to have to look up an answer to your question in volumes of encyclopedias, or rifle through drawers of card catalogs to locate a library book… did you really think you’d live to see the day when you’d get everything done online through a personal computer or handheld digital device? Or did you leave that implausible concept to the realm of dystopian science fiction tales like Fahrenheit 451 or 1984?
We’ve been so eager as a society to keep pace with all that’s new, few have pondered what’s to lose along the way. Sure, convenience and speed are alluring. But at what price?
There’s something sacred about age-old traditions we hold dear… like spreading out the newspaper while drinking morning coffee, or reading an engrossing novel while curled up near a winter’s fire, or enjoying a favorite magazine while settling in for a long flight or car ride. And yet, the Digital Revolution is threatening the survival of all of these print media pastimes.
Print newspapers throughout the U.S. are either going out of business or changing over to digital format. The parent company of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has cut several of their newspapers to three days a week, including the Times-Picayune, causing New Orleans to become the largest U.S. city without a daily paper. The Plain Dealer could be next on the chopping block, overshadowing New Orleans as the largest city without a daily.
Panicked journalists from the PD established a Save the Plain Dealer page on FaceBook last September, upon the sudden retirement of their publisher. “Our parent company, Advance Publications, has begun a series of radical changes in the markets where it operates newspapers, with the intent of focusing its efforts online,” states the About page.
“You may have heard that our sister papers in New Orleans, Michigan, Alabama, Syracuse and Harrisburg will be published three days a week or less. Advance is laying off half or more of those papers’ reporters, editors and photographers — the people who bring you the news. And it’s cut advertising, marketing and other staff… This isn’t just about jobs. Sure, we want to keep ours. But what we really want to maintain is a vibrant, committed newspaper.”
Founded in 1842, the PD is Ohio’s largest newspaper with more than 665,000 readers daily and almost one million readers on Sunday. But that’s not enough to keep it out of danger. Fifty-eight PD employees are slated to be laid off this year.
Meanwhile, actual books give way to e-readers and magazine giants like Newsweek have stopped printing glossy pages altogether, staying alive by publishing solely online.
Virtually the entire print industry is in freefall due to easy access to the Web, which offers nearly instantaneous news. It’s the end of an age. Some people — like the PD reporters –are reacting with alarm. Others shrug their shoulders and say it’s a sign of the times. Things change. You’ve just got to roll with it.
In a sense, it was all foretold in 1998, with the publication of a little book called, Who Moved the Cheese? Written by Spencer Johnson, MD, the tale was a metaphor where Cheese represents anything we value in life, whether it be a career, a title, a way of life, print media, … whatever makes you tick.
Once we find The Cheese in this maze called life, we become attached to it. If we lose it or it’s taken away, it’s traumatic. How will we react when change inevitably comes and shakes our world? Will we deny reality, curl up in a corner, and play the blame game? Or will we remain flexible, adapt, and move with The Cheese, perhaps discovering even tastier Cheese as we make our way through life’s maze? Beyond that, can we learn to anticipate change so we’re not blindsided when our Cheese disappears again?
Take note of these basic precepts laid out in the book:
The Handwriting on the Wall:
Change happens (They keep moving the cheese).
Anticipate change (Get ready for the cheese to move).
Monitor change (Smell the cheese often so you know when it’s getting old).
Adapt to change quickly (The sooner you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new cheese).
Change (Move with the cheese).
Enjoy change (Savor the adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese).
Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again (They keep moving the cheese).
Part II: PERILOUS TIMES for PAPERS
Just as oil lamps gave way to electric lights, and railroads declined as the interstate highway system spread, print media has been put under pressure from digital innovations, threatening its very survival.
For newspapers, the handwriting has been on the wall a long time. The industry has always been cyclical, and has weathered previous lows. While the 1950s introduced audiences to television, diminishing newspapers’ importance as the primary source of daily news, the advent of the internet in the 1990s exploded with even more media choices for the average reader, further undercutting newspapers’ fundamental role.
Where is the internet going to get its information if local newspapers go out of business?Both television and the internet deliver news faster and in a more visual style than newspapers, which are limited by their physical form and the need to be manufactured and distributed. The competing mediums also offer advertisers the use of video and audio. Additionally, the internet’s search function enables advertisers to target their pitch to readers who have already revealed what information they’re seeking –- an enormous advantage.
The internet has also gone a step further than TV in eroding the advertising income of newspapers, in that it provides a convenient vehicle for classified ads of all kinds. Free services like Craigslist have decimated the classified advertising departments of many newspapers, some of which depended on classifieds for 70 percent of their ad revenue, as Editor & Publisher reported in a 2009 article. At the same time, newspapers have been pinched by consolidation of large department stores, which once accounted for substantial ad revenues.
Further, these ‘new media’ are not saddled with expensive union contracts, printing presses, delivery fleets and overhead accumulated over decades. Many are simply aggregators of news, often derived from print sources, but without print media’s capital-intensive overhead. Estimates put the percentage of online news derived from newspapers at 80 percent, according to The New Yorker.
This begs the question, ‘Where is the internet going to get its information if local newspapers go out of business?’
Spelled out in a new documentary, Black & White and Dead all Over (a film about the end of American Newspapers, focusing on the Philadelphia Inquirer), “The great irony of the internet information age is: You ask people where did you find that out? They’ll say they got it from Google. But they didn’t get it from Google. The source of that information came from a newspaper!”
Content is vitally important. But revenue is still the bottom line.
Estimated print advertising revenues of $19.0 billion in 2012 were the lowest annual amount spent on print newspaper advertising since its ad revenue was first tracked in 1950.
The decline in print newspaper advertising to a 62-year low is amazing by itself, but last year’s ad revenues of $19 billion were less than half of the $46 billion spent just five years before in 2007, and a little more than one-third of the $56.5 billion spent in 2004.
In other words, it took 50 years to go from about $20 billion in annual newspaper print ad revenue in 1950 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.
With revenues plummeting, many newspapers have slashed news bureaus and journalists, while still attempting to publish compelling online content –- much of it more interactive, more lifestyle-driven and more celebrity-conscious than hard news. Creating a vicious cycle, those cuts often spur more and deeper circulation declines—triggering more loss of ad revenues. As reported by the American Journalism Review in 2007, “No industry can cut its way to future success. At some point the business must improve.”
Editor & Publisher magazine states that circulation declines in the United States, coupled with a 23 percent drop in 2008 newspaper ad revenues, have proven a double whammy for some newspaper chains. Combined with the recent recession, the cloudy outlook for future profits has meant that many newspapers put up for sale have been unable to find buyers, who remain concerned about increasing competition, dwindling profits and a business model that seems increasingly outdated.
“As succeeding generations grow up with the Web and lose the habit of reading print,” noted The Columbia Journalism Review in 2007, “it seems improbable that newspapers can survive with a cost structure at least 50 percent higher than their nimbler and cheaper internet competitors.”
The problem facing newspapers is generational: In 2005 The New York Review of Books reported that while 70 percent of older Americans read a newspaper daily, fewer than 20 percent of younger Americans did.
“It is the fundamental problem facing the industry,” writes newspaper analyst John Morton. “It’s probably not going away. And no one has figured a way out.”
Part III: Surviving the Surge
Diversification appears to be the key for print media to survive the digital surge. This should be no surprise to those who have studied the evolutionary principles of adaptation and survival of the fittest.
Company stock at The Washington Post is faring better than most competitors, thanks to their diversification into educational training programs -– and away from publishing. Similarly, Editor& Publisher reports that Pearson PLC, owner of The Financial Times, increased earnings in 2008 despite a drop in newspaper profits, also due to diversification away from publishing.
Bloomberg Businessweek published a provocative article in 2012: “The Future of Media = Many Small Pieces, Loosely Joined,” which warns media companies away from seeking a single solution to magically cure their ills. ”Success for media entities of all kinds will come by making smaller bets on a number of different things. The big problem for the industry’s traditional players is that they have spent decades getting good at doing one thing. But now not as many people want that thing, and experimentation and rapid innovation are not in the media companies’ DNA.”
“Until recently, the holy grail was summed up in two words: replacement revenue. Now the jig’s up. No matter how fast you shovel digital dirt into the chasm of print loss, you can’t recreate the past; you can’t fill the hole.” John Paton, the chief executive of Media News Group and a leading advocate of the ‘digital first’ approach for newspapers, has said the only possible response to the problem of ‘digital dimes’ not making up for the loss of print dollars is to accumulate as much as possible from as many sources as possible (while also reducing costs to try to stem the bleeding). Meinolf Ellers, the managing director of German multimedia agency dpa-infocom, made a similar point: “What we all see—newspaper publisher or news agency—is that the bundle is eroding, losing its power. The more we see the bundle losing market share and reaching the end of its lifecycle, the more we have to work on smaller, fragmented products that, not each by each, but overall, can compensate. That’s the strategy.” This brings us to a phrase that David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society, devised to describe how the Web works: He called it “small pieces, loosely joined.” This is the idea that the Web allows individuals and small groups or entities to have almost as much power as—and in some cases more power than—established players. We have seen the impact of exactly that phenomenon in the media industry over the past few years, with the rise of digital-first entities like the Huffington Post,TMZ, Politico and others. Media outlets can make a number of smaller bets instead of one or two big ones, including ‘in-sourcing’—using printing presses and distribution chains to provide services to others who need those skills—as well as providing marketing services outside the traditional newsprint platform. Also promising is encouraging a kind of membership approach, where new features or ways of packaging content or experiences related to that content are offered to readers. So live events, for example, or e-books, which are a different way of packaging content, can be remarkably profitable, even if that content has appeared previously on the Web for free. There is no one solution in print media’s struggle to survive and actually profit in this strange, new world. But, if necessity is the mother of invention (as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato so aptly put it), print media companies with a will to fight are coming up with creative solutions that will see them well into the foreseeable future.
Part IV: NEW NEWSPAPERS? Or ROADKILL on the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY?
“Wherever there is change and uncertainty lies opportunity, if you’re willing to take risks.” -Mark Cuban, owner of Dallas Mavericks
Undoubtedly, for newspapers to survive in this new environment of 24/7 digital information streams, they need to be nimble, flexible, experimental and bold.
Ultimately, the newspaper of the future may bear little resemblance to the newsprint you now hold in your hands. Newspapers have already become hybrids: part-print and part-internet. Eventually, they seem destined to become internet-only manifestations. Meanwhile, the transition from the printed page to its next embodiment is challenging, both for the newspaper industry and for its consumers.
“Paper is dying,” said Nick Bilton, a technologist for The Times, “but it’s just a device. Replacing it with pixels is a better experience.” What’s emerging may be ‘newspapers’ unrecognizable to older readers, but should be more timely, more topical and more flexible.
Making technological changes work for them, instead of against them, will decide whether newspapers remain vital –- or roadkill on the information superhighway, as stated in “The Death of News” in Salon magazine in 2009.
As for this hometown newspaper, co-owner and editor Michelle Zivoder says, “We will continue to print our paper weekly as has been done for over 40 years. However, we maintain our interactive website and provide our paper in total PDF format. We have done this to accommodate all readers. Currently, we have readers of our little paper worldwide.”
The Weekly Villager website was built several years ago, offering only the paper’s contact information and digital files of previous paper editions. This Web element has grown to include a Facebook page, as well. The updated website now features searchable articles by title or author, plus back issues as PDF files, available on a rolling three-month basis. In addition, anything related to Garrettsville is automatically picked up by Garrettsville Village Facebook pages.
Within the past year, 186,698 visits have been made to the www.weeklyvillager.com, with a monthly average of 15,558 and a daily average of 518, representing 6,810 unique web addresses. Online users log in from all across the U.S., and from more than a dozen countries, including Canada, United Kingdom, Philippines, Brazil, China, France, Netherlands, Chile, Venezuela, Australia, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and many foreign outposts of the U.S. military and government.
Zivoder is committed to retaining the print paper alongside its Web counterpart, as long as it’s feasible. “There is something special about sitting down with a book, magazine or newspaper. It is sad to think that there may be a time in the future where this may not be possible. While the digital age does have its advantages, it is nice to unplug at times.”
The Villager averages 10,000 copies of the newspaper weekly, including nearly 100 weekly print customers who have the paper mailed to them in Florida, Arizona, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois, Washington, and Tennessee.
While printing volume has been reduced by about 2,000 copies weekly since Zivoder became publisher of the Villager about seven years ago, she and co-owner Chris Gerez have still managed to continue to offering a FREE paper — let alone print — in this day and age, while many other community papers have gone the way of the dinosaur.
“We continue to be able to offer the paper for free, thanks to our wonderful advertisers,” Zivoder explains. “The printing of the Villager is supported solely through the space ads, classifieds and obits weekly. We struggle in the winter months like everyone else. We have gone through times where Chris and I held on to our paychecks to make sure the bills got paid, which is what small business owners do. But so far this winter, we have been very fortunate to stay in the black and avoid the red.”
Recent expansion to include coverage to the communities of Ravenna, Streetsboro and Aurora not only opened doors to the Villager’s current advertisers by bringing in new customers, but also added pools of new advertisers for the paper.
Somehow, in a world of downsizing, we were able to super size!The additional change to a larger format paper allows the Villager to print more articles weekly (a current 12-page broadsheet paper is equivalent to the formerly-used 16-page tabloid style paper). An added benefit with The Vindicator as the current printer is improved registration and print quality, so readers are enjoying a more satisfying visual experience.
“When we were looking to improve our print paper and we started looking at options for printers, we actually had several vendors say that they were very impressed at our goals and what we were doing. With print media changing, going from a tabloid to a broadsheet paper was going against the grain. But when you look at how much more we can put into the paper for the same amount we were paying for a smaller paper, it just made sense to us. We can give the public more to read for the same cost. Somehow, in a world of downsizing, we were able to super size!”
Meanwhile, there’s a lot more going on at the Weekly Villager office than just publishing a weekly newspaper. It provides UPS shipping services while its partner company, Villager Printing, does custom printing of shirts, uniforms, banners, signs, and other marketing materials. The Weekly Villager is also in the process of becoming the Garrettsville Area Chamber of Commerce office, where people will be able to pick up information for local chamber businesses, Garrettsville information, Welcome Wagon packets, and other useful information. In addition, Photography by Krista and Villager Printing are now shooting on-site or studio portrait photos.
The Villager certainly IS bucking the trend, thanks to their formula for success during perilous times for print. Looking forward, Zivoder says, “Our goal is to provide a little bit of something for anyone picking up the paper. We have amazing writers and columnists that provide a diverse range of coverage and topics — and we are looking to add more.”