A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

“Weaning our remaining great American newspapers from paper is a multi-year process, part art and part science.”

Among the safest predictions one could make over the past decade-plus is that “next year” will be another abysmal one for the business of local newspapers. The story never seems to change: Newsroom staffs are cut, print circulation declines, print advertising plummets, and digital ad revenue doesn’t amount to much. Rinse and repeat.

But let’s look at the flip side: In most American cities and towns, the flagship newspaper remains far and away the largest provider of quality, independent, public-service journalism. Despite their challenges, these news enterprises still typically maintain the biggest news teams and the deepest capacity for investigative reporting to serve their communities.

Perhaps most importantly, in many key markets — Seattle, Minneapolis, Dallas, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia — daily newspapers have the largest share of digital users of any local media outlet, including TV and radio. Indeed, nimble young digital startups have so far struggled to achieve anything close to the online audience scale of their historically print competitors. For many newspapers, this audience lead has widened during the Covid-19 crisis as readers have turned to trusted, familiar brands for reliable news.

Newspapers shoulder a number of burdens — particularly the cost of printing and distributing the dead-tree versions of their news. The Catch-22 has always been that their remaining print subscribers still pay good money for their beloved morning deliveries. The question newspaper owners and executives have been asking privately for years is how to jettison print costs while retaining their still-substantial subscriber revenues.

In 2021, this behind-closed-doors question will move into the open. News executives, foundations, management consulting firms, and current and prospective investors in newspapers will look much more closely at the economics of eliminating days of print — and then get on with the task. This discussion usually begins with eliminating Saturday print editions in favor of one weekend edition. McClatchy newspapers and many European titles have successfully pursued this strategy.

A number of owners have modeled this future: One high-quality, in-depth printed newspaper on Sunday, plus digital distribution throughout the week. The best forecasts suggest that much of the print advertising that now runs during the week would move to Sunday in such a scenario, still reaching that valued audience. This shift could mean a profitable and sustainable model, if executed properly.

Weaning our remaining great American newspapers from paper is a multi-year process, part art and part science. We need to figure out how to do it well. Perhaps it helps that we already know how to do it badly. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, The Oregonian in Portland, and other Advance Publications are poster children for ham-handed print reductions. In each case, readers and advertisers were given little warning, digital products were underdeveloped, and the business declined sharply.

With product excellence (both an engaging Sunday print newspaper experience and 24/7 digital news), sufficient digital subscription revenue, and community preparedness, this transition can be successful. But it will only work if owners invest meaningfully in their newsrooms rather than gut them for near-term profit. One shining example is The Boston Globe, which now has enough digital reader loyalty and digital user revenue to continue to support its high-impact journalism absent print should it decide to transition.

The crisis in American local news requires solutions at scale. In many, if not most, major American news markets, the player of scale remains the local newspaper. Unburdened of much or most of their print costs, these news enterprises can serve their communities as thriving digital news properties. The sooner and more candidly newspapers embrace a future less focused on print, the better. Their readers figured this out years ago.

jim friedlich

Among the safest predictions one could make over the past decade-plus is that “next year” will be another abysmal one for the business of local newspapers. The story never seems to change: Newsroom staffs are cut, print circulation declines, print advertising plummets, and digital ad revenue doesn’t amount to much. Rinse and repeat.

But let’s look at the flip side: In most American cities and towns, the flagship newspaper remains far and away the largest provider of quality, independent, public-service journalism. Despite their challenges, these news enterprises still typically maintain the biggest news teams and the deepest capacity for investigative reporting to serve their communities.

Perhaps most importantly, in many key markets — Seattle, Minneapolis, Dallas, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia — daily newspapers have the largest share of digital users of any local media outlet, including TV and radio. Indeed, nimble young digital startups have so far struggled to achieve anything close to the online audience scale of their historically print competitors. For many newspapers, this audience lead has widened during the Covid-19 crisis as readers have turned to trusted, familiar brands for reliable news.

Newspapers shoulder a number of burdens — particularly the cost of printing and distributing the dead-tree versions of their news. The Catch-22 has always been that their remaining print subscribers still pay good money for their beloved morning deliveries. The question newspaper owners and executives have been asking privately for years is how to jettison print costs while retaining their still-substantial subscriber revenues.

In 2021, this behind-closed-doors question will move into the open. News executives, foundations, management consulting firms, and current and prospective investors in newspapers will look much more closely at the economics of eliminating days of print — and then get on with the task. This discussion usually begins with eliminating Saturday print editions in favor of one weekend edition. McClatchy newspapers and many European titles have successfully pursued this strategy.

A number of owners have modeled this future: One high-quality, in-depth printed newspaper on Sunday, plus digital distribution throughout the week. The best forecasts suggest that much of the print advertising that now runs during the week would move to Sunday in such a scenario, still reaching that valued audience. This shift could mean a profitable and sustainable model, if executed properly.

Weaning our remaining great American newspapers from paper is a multi-year process, part art and part science. We need to figure out how to do it well. Perhaps it helps that we already know how to do it badly. The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, The Oregonian in Portland, and other Advance Publications are poster children for ham-handed print reductions. In each case, readers and advertisers were given little warning, digital products were underdeveloped, and the business declined sharply.

With product excellence (both an engaging Sunday print newspaper experience and 24/7 digital news), sufficient digital subscription revenue, and community preparedness, this transition can be successful. But it will only work if owners invest meaningfully in their newsrooms rather than gut them for near-term profit. One shining example is The Boston Globe, which now has enough digital reader loyalty and digital user revenue to continue to support its high-impact journalism absent print should it decide to transition.

The crisis in American local news requires solutions at scale. In many, if not most, major American news markets, the player of scale remains the local newspaper. Unburdened of much or most of their print costs, these news enterprises can serve their communities as thriving digital news properties. The sooner and more candidly newspapers embrace a future less focused on print, the better. Their readers figured this out years ago.

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