John K. Hartman
Author of The USA Today Way books
 
 
 The End of the Print Newspaper?

 By John K. Hartman

Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism
King Saud University,
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Jan. 13, 2009 REVISED BASED ON PRESENTATION

John K. Hartman, Ph.D.
Professor of Journalism
Central Michigan University
Mount Pleasant, MI, U.S.

john.hartman@dacor.net

 

ROUTINE AT END

Here’s my routine and the routine of millions of other residents of the United States of America.

Wake up.

Put some cold water on my face.

Wash down a vitamin pill with a glass of water.

Put on my bathroom and some slippers.

Walk to the front of my driveway – in my case with my 77-pound blonde labradoodle dog in tow – the kind of the dog the Obamas are thinking of getting -- and pick up the copy of today’s newspaper that was dropped there in the middle of the night.

Return to the house, drink a glass of orange juice, toast and butter a bagel and put some peanut butter on it (protein), pour a cup of coffee with cream, take the bagel the coffee and the newspaper to a comfortable chair, turn on the light, elevate my feet, put some soft new age music on and spend the next 30 to 60 minutes reading the newspaper. Just and what has been described as the “morning friendly,” the daily newspaper.

Now I admit to more of an attachment to the newspaper than the average person. I used to work for newspapers. In college I was sports editor and editorial page editor. After graduation, I was sports editor for a 6-day-a-week newspaper in my hometown of Ashland, Ohio, for three years. Later I was a copy editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in Toledo, Ohio, for more than four years. When I read a newspaper, I sometimes imagine what went into putting out the paper that day and wonder about how the headlines were written (my specialty) and the paper designed (not my specialty). But first and foremost, I want to know what has gone on in the local area, state, nation and the world in the last 24 hours, I want to know what is upcoming that I might be interested in – including news and sports programs on television – and I am looking for wise, clever, even funny columnists and cartoons and, yes, I confess, I am curious about what has happened in the world of entertainment, because, like it or not, most of us have a “media life,” a fantasy existence, along with our real life, even hard-bitten journalists and hard-bitten journalism professors.

I cannot imagine a world without print newspapers. I cannot conceive of my own world where there is no morning friendly to pluck from my driveway and read cover to cover before I face the rest of my day. If newspapers go the way of the dinosaurs, become extinct, it would be great loss for me and everybody else who cares about what is going on around them, and that includes you, my distinguished audience. It would also be a great loss for the millions who do not read a newspaper, but who should. It would be a great gain for those who would like to manipulate us, like unscrupulous politicians and business people, who would cheat and steal and make bad decisions with impunity if newspapers were not watching them and reporting on their foibles.

In recent years, as the internet usurped the news distribution mantle, I tried to remain loyal to print newspapers, assiduously reading one or more of them before looking up the news on the internet in the morning. But a funny thing happened on my way to “perfection,” I found out with increasing regularity that there were overnight developments and breaking news that I wanted updates on and I knew full well that the morning newspaper, that was 8-to-10-hours old before it landed in my hands, would not contain those new overnight development. Hence, I found myself dialing into the internet more and more often before completing my reading of the print newspaper. Sometimes, if the lure of breaking news was compelling enough, I would consult the internet before even opening the print newspaper.

If the lure of the internet can get to me, a 63-year-old journalist turned journalism professor and disturb my print newspaper habit, imagine what the internet can do to internet-savvy younger folks with little or no attachment to print newspapers.

The internet’s ability to cover breaking news and to instantly update the news every minute, infinitely, if warranted, is only part of its advantage over print newspapers. There are no space limitations like there are on a page of newsprint. It has been said that the internet has an infinite next button. Color and design possibilities are much grander. And then there are audio, video, animation, blogs, and 2-way communication to name a few benefits that the internet offiers. It might be said that the internet is newspapers, magazines, radio, television and telephone all rolled into one.

The signs of wear and tear have become obvious in the print newspaper industry, once the most powerful and lucrative medium for news and advertising in the United States of America, but not any more.

The stock of Gannett, publisher of USA Today, and the largest newspaper company in the U.S., has fallen to less than 10 percent of its value 5 years ago. The company has laid off 25 percent of its journalists and other employee categories in the last 5 years. The stock of the New York Times Co. has dropped $30 a share. It is mortgaging its new headquarters and selling its interest in the Boston Red Sox  to maintain its cash flow. News Corp, run by international media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch, who recently purchased the New York Times, is selling in single digits. McClatchy, who bought the once proud KnightRidder, has seen its stock fall to $2 a share. JournalRegister Co., a mid-sized newspaper company and owner of the Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Sun, where Central Michigan University is located, has seen its stock plunge to zero and faces imminent bankrupty. The mighty Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times among other major U.S. newspapers, filed for bankruptcy protection on Dec. 8. Others may follow. Beyond losing paid subscribers ( a source of 20 percent of their revenue), the newspapers are hemorrhaging advertising as the United States slides into a deep recession and three staples of newspaper advertising revenue decline sharply: real estate, automobile and job ads.

This is complicated by the fear that all 3 major U.S. automakers are facing bankruptcy and that 2 of them (General Motors and Chrysler) may go under in spite of the massive government bail-out..

As the 21st century opened, the newspaper industry became stymied as the internet became the first and best choice for news. The newspaper industry’s annual revenues began to fall instead of the modest growth rates it was used to. The recession only made things worse.

Some small publications have cut the frequency of their print products, no longer publishing daily, and inviting their readers to get breaking news from their web sites and from mobile devices, such as a Blackberry or iPhone. Two large newspapers in Detroit are cutting home delivery to 3 days a week – the days that advertisers most covet – Thursday, Friday and Sunday. A smaller version of the papers will be printed the other four days and will be for sale in stores and in vending machines. Readers would be invited to consult the paper’s web sites in-between print editions. But will they? We don’t know, but we do know that readers have choices between as many as one billion web sites and there is no guarantee that the News and Free Press will be able to monetize their internet presence.

As I indicated earlier, 80 percent of newspapers’ revenue -- 20% of revenue comes from payment from subscribers (like me) for home delivery and from single copy sales -- is what advertisers pay for access to subscribers’ eyeballs.

It was thought (and yours truly was quoted thusly in 2004 edition of Harvard University’s Nieman Reports) that eventually newspapers would make enough money from selling advertising on their web sites to offset the declining revenue of their print products. It still may happen, but so far the newspapers’ web sites are not taking in nearly enough revenue to make up for the print declines. Newspapers web sites’ ad revenue remains in the single digits and some worry that it will never, ever be enough to replace the losses on the print side. One source predicts that it will be at least 5 years, if ever, for newspaper web sites to become profitable.

This all brings me to a central point. While newspapers are clearly inferior to the internet as a distributor of news and information, they remain a superior way to deliver advertising. There is no substitute for placing an ad on the pages of a newspaper and-or placing an ad circular in a newspaper and putting it on the doorsteps of folks with money to spend. Few people are going to print out an ad circular from the internet. Colored ink is very expensive. People, especially women, love to peruse the ads in a newspaper. For them, the ads are a form of news – ideas for spending. Very stimulating for some folks.

So I predict the following: Smaller print newspapers will stop publishing 6 or 7 days a week, and cut to 3, probably Thursday, Friday and Sunday – big advertising days. But large newspapers like the Detroit Free Press and News should continue home delivery 7 days a week because they do not want to interrupt the daily newspaper habit. Once interrupted, the daily newspaper habit may never return, as I wrote in a recent editorandpublisher.com article. Breaking news and sports news will move to the internet. The parts of the newspaper not filled by ads will include less time intensive stuff that can be done in advance like feature stories, listings of upcoming events and meetings, schedules of TV show and movies. Some roundups of important local news events and sports will appear but in limited form with a promotional statement: see our web site for further details.

The print newspaper is not going away, but it is losing frequency, losing content, becoming mostly an advertising vehicle and probably will be delivered free to desirable customers (the folks advertisers want to reach), causing the loss of circulation revenue. Better to lose that 20 percent than the indispensable 80 percent of advertising revenue, and the ad revenue is being threatened by the drop in circulation and readership because younger folks do not want to pay for a newspaper..

Maybe, just maybe in 5 years, the advertising spigot will open up for newspapers’ web sites and maybe, just maybe, large numbers of the public will demand the morning friendly be returned to their doorstep every day. Stranger things have happened. I would note here that the print newspaper readership habit in Saudi Arabia appears stronger then in the U.S.

Meanwhile, I am preparing for the day when I get up, put cold water on my face, take my vitamins, put on my bathrobe and slippers, pour a glass of orange juice, toast and butter a bagel topped with peanut butter, pour that cup of coffer with cream follow my dog into my home office and read the latest news from the screen of my computer, soft music in the background, my brain in full gear, but missing every day the morning friend.

(Columbus study of U.S. college student awareness of Saudi society inserted here.)

 

John K. Hartman is a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.  He is the author of two books, "The USA Today Way 2: The Future" (2000) and "The USA Today Way" (1992).  He has examined much of the research done on young adult newspaper readership and is a widely quoted source on the topic.  Jacqueline Hartman provided editing assistance to the author.

In August 2008 Dr. Hartman covered and blogged the Democratic National Convention for the Mount Pleasant, Mich., Morning Sun. In 2008 Dr. Hartman was named the Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and visited the kingdom to lecture, teach and give seminars. He is scheduled to return in 2009. To learn more about King Saud University, visit jrc.ksu.edu.sa/en

Copyright © 2009, John K. Hartman.  All Rights Reserved.
John.Hartman@dacor.net