Almost every week, I hear of another print publication folding under the immense pressure of the economic pinch. The Rocky Mountain News of Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just went out of business completely. The Chicago Tribune, LA Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer have all requested bankruptcy protection. Christian Science Monitor, PC Magazine, and several others are moving to online-only publication. Even iconic publications like Rolling Stone are making major cuts. So is it too late for print media? Can magazines and newspapers weather the storm of declining ad revenues and decreased newsstand sales?
Newspapers have taken the biggest hit, by far. The problem, according to NPR’s recent story, “Chronicling the Death of American Newspapers“, is this:
“Swiftly moving competition from emerging Web sites has hastened the downfall of newspapers. As more people turn to the Internet for news — even, ironically, to the newspapers’ own Web sites — fewer subscribe to news printed on paper. As circulation dwindles, so does advertising revenue. And without the same amount of advertising revenue, newspapers can no longer afford large, comprehensive, news-gathering operations. So the newspaper shrinks, attracting fewer readers, leading to a decline in advertising revenue, and the death spiral continues.
Newspapers have tried, with varying degrees of success, to migrate to the Web and hold on to their readers. But the advertising revenue is dramatically less than it was for the print version. (Many advertisers have their own economic problems to solve.) Consequently, newsrooms are having to contract — through buyouts, layoffs, combining or closing certain sections and even shutting down the presses altogether. There seems to be a general consensus that the kind of print and photographic journalism supported by large newsrooms and substantial resources is teetering on extinction.”
Even worse, the publications that seem to be thriving in this economic atmosphere, have nothing to do with investigative journalism or memorable imagery. The New York Times has a greattracker for comparing the difference in advertising revenues for major publications during the past 3 years. Interestingly (and rather disturbingly), most tabloid publications recorded significant increases in revenue, like inTouch, who increased advertising by 68% from 2005 to 2008. In contrast, magazines like Newsweek, Businessweek, New Yorker and Time took big hits in ad sales. But the big winner? TV Guide, whose ad sales increased in volume by a whopping 458% over the same three-year period. Americans love their televisions.
Many print publications have been able to stay afloat, just barely, by developing robust online content. So far, it has been nearly impossible to gain the same level of advertising revenue from online publications as from print editions. But the idea of bolstering missing advertising revenue by charging readers to view content online doesn’t seem a likely scenario. Experts agree that consumers simply won’t pay for news content online. People want their news for free. Period. And the internet is more than willing to oblige; with blogs, free news sites and even syndicated news sites, consumers have all the news they need at their fingertips.Despite the floundering newspapers, ironically, the demand for news has never been higher. Web traffic to newspaper websites was up 12% in 2008. MSNBC saw 45 million unique visitors in January 2009. People seem to reconize the value of quality newsgathering, but are unwilling to pay to access it. Smart newspaper publishers should recognize that the end of print news is near, and should invest time and money in developing their online presence to shift to an online advertising-only revenue model. If they accomplish that, they might be able to survive.
As for consumer magazines, the weaker ones are rapidly being culled. But these special-interest publications are much more resilient than their newsprint brethren. Why? Two reasons. First, because they generally carve out a specific niche for themselves, instead of covering a wide array of subjects relevant to the general public. In contrast, every newspaper in the country covers the same major national news stories, giving newspapers a massive redundancy factor. The second advantage of magazines is that while they may publish time-sensitive information, the shelf life of that information is much longer than the average news story. Newspapers can’t compete with constant online updates – by the time a printed paper hits the newsstands, it is already 6 hours old (eons in news-time).
The morals of this evolving obituary? What does print media need to do to survive? My advice:
1. Develop a dynamic and interactive web presence. The Internet is not going away. It is here to stay, and it will bury print media inthe near future. For publications to survive, they must embrace web content, not fight it.
2. Carve out a niche. Even newspapers can capitalize on niche reporting. Downsize your print edition and localize. The one thing that the consumer cannot find easily online is in-depth local news. Leave the redundant national news stories to the big guys, and focus on developing hard-hitting stories within the community. They’re out there – go find them.
3. Increase your shelf life. Focus on stories that are relevant for days or weeks or even months after you report on them.
As for me… I’m going to cross my fingers that magazines and newspapers can and will survive in one form or another. After all, they write my paychecks.