Thoughts on the newspaper

Much has been written and spoken recently about the fate of the newspaper. As with the rest of the print media industry, newspaper publishing is being altered by a dual reality: 1.) the economic downturn is devastating advertising revenues necessary to maintain financial viability; 2.) the transition of information and news distribution to alternative media such as TV, radio and, most importantly, the Internet.

Major metropolitan daily newspapers are closing or significantly cutting back frequency (The Rocky Mountain News suspended daily print publication on February 26, 2009, just 55 days short of its 150th birthday). Reported quarterly losses at some of the most prestigious publications are dire (The Boston Globe reported a first quarter 2009 loss of $74.5 million).

Clearly, falling readership is a key factor that guides the decision of advertisers to pay for ad space in newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey conducted in 2008:

For more than a decade, the audiences for most traditional news sources have steadily declined, as the number of people getting news online had surged.

While the causes and specifics of this phenomenon are complex, the trend is undeniable: newspapers are a declining source of news for growing numbers of people.

Another factor impacting newspaper revenue is the loss of money from classified advertising caused by eBay, Craigslist and other online services that provide similar services. These online resources are often less expensive (or free) and are more effective at selling or finding the product or service being bought or sold.

I think the future of newspapers is dependent upon form, content and cost. I am a weekday subscriber to The New York Times. The paper is delivered to my home at around 5:00 am each day. I can and occasionally do read the NYT online, however, I find the physical qualities (size, weight, portability, disposability) of the printed paper advantageous. This costs me about $25 per month.

I have considered purchasing a Kindle (which offers automatic daily download of the NYT). Besides the size of the upfront cost ($349 for the device and $99 for an annual subscription to the paper), I am hesitant to give up the other attributes of the printed paper (I don’t count ink smudged fingers and the occasional rain-soaked copy in the front yard among them).

There is one more important consideration: environmental impact of the printed newspaper vs. an electronic edition. I do not have the data to back up this assertion, but I would suggest that an electronic subscription to the daily newspaper (device production and delivery, publication content production, electronic delivery to the device, power to operate the device) would result in a net decrease in carbon impact versus the same for the print edition (publication content production, print production, newspaper delivery).

Newspapers will continue to exist well into the future, albeit in altered state of being. Their future is not guaranteed. When a genuine electronic “paper” is developed (the Kindle is about as close as it comes today), I believe the newspaper and other kinds of print publishing will be displaced The key to the continued existence of newspapers is finding the appropriate relationship between the use-function-cost of their print and online editions. What do you think?

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