Jack Shafer at Reuters has an article about the accelerating demise of daily newspapers, as more and more major papers reduce the number of days they publish and try to transition to the far less profitable online world. He points to the shocking numbers:
All of the industry’s vital signs are pointing south. Profit margins are way down, its stock prices have collapsed, daily circulation has fallen about 30 percent over the last 20 years, the percentage of adults regularly reading newspapers has been falling steadily since 1999 (especially among younger adults), and advertising revenue, which stood at $50 billion in real terms in 1984, fell to $23.9 billion in 2011. The corresponding decline in newspaper valuation is illustrated by three recent sales of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. In 2006, the papers went for $515 million. In 2010, they commanded $139 million. Just two months ago they sold for $55 million.
Of course newspaper owners aren’t the only heavies in the story. “The owner didn’t decide to shrink the paper,” said Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff in 2008 as the Detroit papers decreased home delivery from seven days to three. “The reader decided to shrink the paper.”
Other salient financial data points: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the parent company of the Wall Street Journal for $5.6 billion in 2007, but wrote down $2.8 billion of that in 2009, essentially admitting that its value had halved in two years. The New York Times Co, once worth $7 billion, is now valued at less than $1 billion.
If you were a newspaper owner, you’d be liquidating and harvesting, too, and with the exception of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, that’s what most owners appear to be doing. Last week, Newhouse Newspapers* announced it was going to reduce the number of days it prints its New Orleans Times-Picayune and its Alabama titles from seven days to three days a week. This follows similar cutbacks in printing by Newhouse’s Michigan papers announced in 2011 and by the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News in 2009.
He also notes that the internet is just the latest technological challenge to newspapers — and maybe the final straw:
Everybody blames the Internet for the decline of newspapers, but the Web is only the most recent of electric interruptions to have disturbed their profitability, which began with radio in the late 1920s and was followed by broadcast television, car radios, transistor radios, FM radio, and cable television. Newspapers were in so much advertising trouble in September 1941 that Time magazine ran a piece (paid) about their “downward economic spiral.” Press scholar David R. Davies argues in his 2006 book The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, 1945-1965 that daily newspapers were in serious trouble by the mid-1960s, because, among other things, they had failed to hook the baby boom generation. Los Angeles Times press reporter David Shaw sounded the alarm in a 1976 piece in his newspaper. It began: “Are you now holding an endangered species in your hands?” Update the figures and change a few dates and the names of the principals in Shaw’s piece and you could almost pass it off as a 2012 diagnosis of newspaper industry ills.
Newspaper owners may be running out of time to beat the liquidation clock if the prediction (pdf) made in January by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future proves accurate. Because the current generation of print newspaper readers aren’t being replaced, most major U.S. print dailies will be dead in five years, the report concluded. Very small newspapers might endure as dailies, as well as the large national newspapers – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today – and the local Washington Post. For other newspapers to beat the reaper, said the Annenberg report, they must downsize from daily to once- or twice-a-week publication.
I think that’s about right. Small, hyper-local papers will probably be able to survive, but they’ll have to be smart with their online presence. The big boys will keep going, but with fewer reporters and editors and fewer stories covered. Everything in between is likely to be gone at some point, or so dramatically reduced as to be irrelevant.