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Jan. 22, 2009, 7:37 a.m.

Are newspapers doomed?

Continuing from yesterday’s self-introduction: When I started my original blog, News After Newspapers, just four months ago, evidence of the doom of the newspaper business was limited to the ongoing layoffs, buyouts, revenue declines, cost cuts and occasional shut-downs being chronicled then, as now, in Paul Gillin’s blog Newspaper Death Watch. Today, the evidence is more overt, with several major bankruptcies, the announced disappearance of two major-market newspapers, the Rocky Mountain Post and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and much more doom and gloom in the air.

Not only is there a recession on, but most of the leading newspaper-owning firms were built by accumulating debt which now overwhelms whatever is left of their intrinsic value.  With no further credit lines to fall back on, continual cost-slashing is the only possible way to maintain positive cash flow.  The problem is that many newspapers have been damaged so severely by these cuts that readers will abandon them in droves, followed by some of the remaining advertisers, setting up a death spiral from which they can not recover.

This crisis doesn’t stem purely from the current economic downturn — it has been decades in the making.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, publishers noticed that younger people weren’t reading newspapers as much as their elders. The industry responded with youth-oriented features and a Newspapers in Education program, hoping to inculcate the daily newspaper habit. And, the philosophers among us said, “Look, when these kids grow up, get married, buy houses, have kids in school, and pay taxes, they’ll read newspapers because they need to know what’s going on.” And indeed, some of them did. But the experience since the 1970s is that each succeeding age cohort reads newspapers less than the prior cohort. (Links: 1970-1997 trend, Sunday newspapers (PDF), 1967-1997 trend, daily newspapers (PDF), 1999-2006 trend). Moreover, as each cohort ages, its newspaper readership tends to drop, not grow. This is true even of the oldest age groups. Nothing the industry has tried to do has made the slightest dent in these inexorable trends.

The industry now tends to point to the Internet and to suggest that it is both the problem and the opportunity — younger people read newspapers less because they get their news online, but the industry is benefiting from rapid growth in online readership and revenue.

Hold on, though: the age-cohort readership trends started in the 1960s, not in 1995 or so when the online readership started to make an impact. This problem has been a long time coming. As the readership figures linked above show, around 1970 the nation was still fairly monolithic in its readership habits — all age groups were heavy newspaper readers with rates ranging from 70 to 76 percent.

Here’s my theory of what happened to that solid franchise. Go back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Everyone was in the same boat; the country was unified in its interests and concerns; although there were different political viewpoints, everyone read newspapers and listened to radio to know what was going on.  Few had time or resources for anything but mainstream interests and pursuits.  This continued through World War II, the Korean War, the early stages of the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. But the Baby Boom generation changed the game. With greater prosperity and less international turbulence to worry about, interests began to diversify enormously from the 1970s right through the current decade. It was a luxury we could afford — more cable channels, more movie screens, more books and magazines focused on more niche interests, more sports franchises, more highways to go to more malls, more resorts and more entertainment venues, more exotic foods on supermarket shelves, more diversity in every possible direction.

Daily newspapers can no longer reflect all this diversity in their pages. The idea of a single mass medium that everyone in a community or metropolis would want to read is no longer logical, any more than we are all likely to watch the same television programs or tune to the same website or radio station.

The web, of course, has only accelerated this trend of diversification into niche interests. It was not the cause of the decline of newspaper readership, but it’s not the solution, either.

So, why are newspapers doomed? Because that diversification of interests will not be reversed, so within a few years, the average newspaper reader will be of retirement age, and only the 65-and-up age cohort will still have a majority (but barely, and shrinking) that reads a daily newspaper. That’s not a sustainable business model.

No newspaper, newspaper group or industry consortium has articulated a realistic strategy in response to this. Almost uniformly, they proclaim that while their online operations are growing and are important, print is still the foundation of their business. And that’s a problem, because if newspapers didn’t exist, no one in their right mind would invent them.

To have even a chance of survival, the mindset of the industry needs to become: We are in the business of publishing information content continuously on our web sites; every 24 hours (for now, and this may ultimately change to once or twice weekly) we gather some of that information into a printed product and distribute it, but our business is focused on and driven by our online operations.

News After Newspapers focused on ways to save the business, or launch new news enterprises, by pursuing this vision unequivocally.  I’ll be continuing that quest here.  Readers interested in some of my core preachings (and ramblings) can peruse these posts at my old blog:

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2009, 7:37 a.m.
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