The Future of Newspapers

The Future of Newspapers

This column leaves me scratching my head. Richard Watson, writing at Fast, likes the future of newspapers despite alarming statistics he cites early in the story: “In 1960, 80 percent of Americans read a daily newspaper. Today the figure is closer to 50 percent — and it’s falling. Globally it’s the same story. Between 1995-2003, worldwide newspaper circulation fell by five percent. In 1892 London had 14 evening papers. Now it has only one. Also in the UK, a staggering 19 percent of all newspapers delivered to retailers in the first quarter of 2006 came back as returns and three national newspaper titles had return (non sale) rates approaching 50 percent.”

With all of the talk about media ethics and the like, it seems like newspapers (not to mention other media) are falling over themselves to let amater content populate their Web sites and pages. Columnists, scholars, ombudsmen and the like endlessly parse the moves of working journalists from a disconnected ivory tower, while at the same time managment rushes to incorporate the blog, video and other amateur content into its established brands in the interest of chasing new media and retaining “market share”–YouTube stye.

Watson asks: “So who will deliver tomorrow’s newspaper? The answer, apart from you and me, will include a mixture of mainstream media companies and brand owners. Mainstream media owners will increasingly divert investment into digital media platforms while companies like Nike and Procter & Gamble will create their own content. For example, see and”

This likely will happen. And this development, on the face of it, isn’t either good or bad. It’s just change. But how does anyone see these trends and think they will lead to the resurgence of the newspaper as we know it today? This next paragraph is even more questionable: “Sticking my neck out a bit I’d even suggest that there could a newspaper renaissance around the corner. Many local titles are thriving because they are personalised. The news is local and advertising tends to be localised and highly accountable — which is something that people are making a song and dance about in new media circles. For example, Fox Network is customizing its TV ads so that local neighborhoods can receive tailored TV commercials.” Really. He just noticed that newspapers were local and accountable?

I just don’t understand how corporations that look at newspapers’ average return (which are well over the average for Fortune 500 companies) and demand more will ever create an environment for print to thrive. And Watson cites papers that allow readers to create the entire content, or a paper in Wisconsin that allows readers to pick page-one stories — all moves to ingratiate the brand with the reader, but take important decisions away from the hands of professionals schooled in media ethics, standards, news judgment, and objectivity. In his analysis, Watson fails to fully understand a statistic cited in his own column: “We don’t even trust newspapers these days. Only 59 percent of Americans believe what they read in the newspapers compared to 80 percent in 1985.” The demographics tell the tale. When an aging readership can’t tell you why they read the paper, other than “because I’ve always read it,” I would call it a habit, but I wouldn’t call it “brand loyalty” as Watson does. If it were, publishers could take it to the bank.

And sure, all business is local, as Watson attests. But this newspaper business isn’t going local from the ground up. Just today, Google announced that it will start placing ads in local newspapers. According to the New York TImes, “Hoping to reach out to a new crop of customers, such as small businesses and online retailers, many of the largest newspaper companies, including Gannett, the Tribune Company, The New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company and Hearst, have agreed to try the system in a three-month test set to start later this month.

“For Google, the test is an important step to the company’s audacious long-term goal: to build a single computer system through which advertisers can promote their products in any medium. For the newspaper industry, reeling from the loss of both readers and advertisers, this new system offers a curious bargain: the publishers can get much-needed revenue but in doing so they may well make Google — which is already the biggest seller of online advertising — even stronger.”

And yet tonight, the Philadelphia Enquirer reports that it might have to eliminate a full third of its newsroom jobs (nearly 150 positions) in the coming months.