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.

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Cory Haik   Be essential

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is