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What 2010 will bring newspapers: Bad revenue news, bad bankruptcy news, and maybe a nice tablet

[Yesterday, we showed how our Martin Langeveld's predictions for 2009 turned out. A few hits, a few misses, but lots of thoughts provoked. Here's his list of what we can expect in 2010. —Josh]

Newspaper ad revenue: At least technically, the recession is over, with GDP growth measured at 2.2 percent in Q3 of 2009 and widely forecast in Q4 to exceed that rate. But newspaper revenue has not followed suit, dropping 28 percent in Q3. McClatchy and the New York Times Company (which both came in at about that level in Q3) hinted recently that Q4 would be better, in the negative low-to-mid 20 percent range. This is not unexpected — in the last few recessions with actual GDP contraction (1990-91 and 2001), newspaper revenue remained in negative territory for at least two quarters after the GDP returned to growth. But the newspaper dip has been bigger each time, and the current slide started (without precedent) a year and a half before the recession did, with a cumulative revenue loss of nearly 50 percent. Newspaper revenue has never grown by much more than 10 percent (year over year) in any one quarter, so no real recovery is likely; this is a permanently downsized industry. My call for revenue by quarter during 2010 is: -11%, -10%, -6%, -2%.

Newspaper online revenue (included in the overall prediction above) will be the only bright spot, breaking even in Q1 and ramping up to 15% growth by Q4.

Newspaper circulation revenue will grow, because publishers are realizing that print is now a niche they can and should charge for, rather than trying to keep marginal subscribers with non-stop discounting. But this means circulation will continue to drop. In 2009, we saw drops of 7.1 percent in the six-month period ending March 31 and 10.6 percent for the period ending Sept. 30. In 2010, we’ll see a losses of at least 7.5% in each period.

Newspaper bankruptcies: I don’t think we’re out of the woods, or off the courthouse steps, although the newspaper bankruptcy flurry in 2009 was in the first half of the year. The trouble is the above-mentioned revenue decline. If it continues at double-digit rates, several companies will hit the wall, where they have no capital or credit resources left and where a “restructuring” is preferable and probably more strategic than continuing to slash expenses to match revenue losses. So I will predict at least one bankruptcy of a major newspaper company. In fact, let’s make that at least two.

Newspaper closings and publishing-frequency reductions: Yup, there will be closing and frequency reductions. Those revenue and circulation declines will hit harder in some places than others, forcing more extinction than we saw in 2009.

Mergers: It’s interesting that we saw very little M&A activity in 2009 — none of the players saw much opportunity to gain by consolidation. They all just hunkered down waiting for the recession to end. It has ended, but if my prediction is right and revenue doesn’t turn up or at least flatten by Q2, the urge to merge or otherwise restructure will set in. Expect to see at least a few fairly big newspaper firms merge or be acquired by other media outfits. (But, as in 2009, don’t expect Google to buy the New York Times or any other print media.)

Shakeups: Given the fact that newspaper stocks generally outperformed the market, it’s not surprising that there were few changes in the executive suites. But if the industry continues to contract, those stock prices will head back down. Don’t be surprised to see some boards turn to new talent. If they do, they’ll bring in specialists from outside the industry good at creative downsizing and reinvention of business models. Sooner would be better than later, in some cases.

Hyperlocal: There will be more and more launches of online and online/print combos focused on covering towns, neighborhoods, cities and regions, with both for-profit and nonprofit business models. Startups and major media firms looking to enter this space with standardized and mechanized approaches won’t do nearly as well as one-off ventures where real people take a risk, start a site, cover their market like a blanket, create a brand and sell themselves to local advertisers.

Paid content: At the end of 2008, this wasn’t yet much of a discussion topic. It became the obsession of 2009, but the year is ending with few actual moves toward full paywalls or more nuanced models. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online promises a beta rollout soon and claims a client list numbering well over 1,000 publications. Those are not commitments to use JO’s system — rather, they’re signatories to a non-binding letter of intent that gives them access to some of the findings from JO’s beta test. Many publishers, including many who have signed that letter, remain firmly on the sidelines, realizing that they have little content that’s unique or valuable enough to readers to charge for. JO itself has not speculated what kind of content might garner reader revenue, although its founders have been clear that they’re not recommending across-the-board paywalls.

So where are we heading in 2010? My predictions are that by the end of the year, most daily papers will still be publishing the vast majority of their content free on the web; that most of those experimenting with pay systems will be disappointed; and that the few broad paywalls in place now at local and regional dailies will prove of no value in stemming print circulation declines.

Gadgets: The recently announced consortium led by Time Inc. to publish magazine and (eventually) newspaper content on tablets and other platforms will see the first fruits of its efforts late in the year as Apple and several others unveil tablet devices — essentially oversized iPhones that don’t make phone calls but have 10-inch screens and make great color readers. Expect pricing in the $500 ballpark plus a data plan, which could include a selection of magazine subscriptions (sort of like channels in cable packages, but with more à la carte choice). If newspapers are on the ball, they can join Time’s consortium and be part of the plan. Tablet sales will put a pretty good dent in Kindle sales. One wish/hope for the (as yet unnamed) publisher consortium: Atomize the content and let me pick individual articles — don’t force me to subscribe to a magazine or buy a whole copy. In other words, don’t attempt to replicate the print model on a tablet.

Social networks: Twitter’s own site usage will continue to be flat (it has actually lost traffic slowly but steadily since summer), but that probably means more people are accessing Twitter through various apps on computers and smartphones, so actual engagement is hard to gauge.  Facebook will continue to grow internationally but is probably close to maxing out in the U.S. With Facebook now cash-flow positive, and Twitter still essentially revenue-less except for lucrative search deals with Google and Bing, could Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams be holding deal talks sometime during the year? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Privacy: The Federal Trade Commission will recommend to Congress a new set of online privacy initiatives requiring clearer “opt-in” provisions governing how personal information of web users may be used for things like targeting ads and content. Anticipating this, Facebook, Google and others will continue to maneuver to lock consumers into opt-in settings that allow broad use of personal data without having to ask consumers to reset their preferences in response to the legislation. In the end, Congress will dither but not pass a major overhaul of privacy regs.

Mobile (with thanks to Art Howe of Verve Wireless): By the end of 2010 a huge shift toward mobile consumption of news will be evident. In 2009, mobile news was just getting on the radar screen, but during the year several million people downloaded the AP’s mobile app to their iPhones, and several million more adopted apps from individual publishers. By the end of 2010, with many more smartphone users, news apps will find tens of millions of new users (Art might project 100 million), and that’s with tablets just appearing on the playing field. During 2009, web readership of news (though not of newspaper content) overtook news in printed newspapers. Looking out to sometime in 2011 or 2012, more people will get their news from a mobile device than from a desktop or laptop, and news in print will be left completely in the dust.

Stocks: I accurately predicted the Dow’s rise during 2009 and that newspaper stocks would beat the market. The Dow will rise by 8% (from its Dec. 31 close), but newspaper stocks will sink as revenue fails to rebound quarter after quarter.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    July 22, 2014
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