As someone who reads newspapers, printed on paper thank you, I’ve been intently following the downward spiral of this industry over the last several years. I acquired the habit of reading the paper from my father and there was a point in my lifetime when nearly every adult read the daily newspaper. It wasn’t a question of whether or not you subscribed, but instead we debated about getting the morning or evening delivery. Yes newspapers used to be printed and delivered twice a day. If you didn’t get it in the morning you couldn’t enjoy it with your coffee. But if you got it early in the day you would miss the latest breaking news. We couldn’t afford both so we took the morning delivery. There has always been a desire for fresh news.
This year many storied papers have either closed their doors or moved distribution entirely online. Falling readership is closely followed by evaporating advertising revenues, so the math problem is difficult to solve. Popular thinking says newspapers are old media and are being slowly killed by the online household penetration of PC’s and broadband connections. Consumers can get their news instantly for free online, so why pay to wait for old news? It’s also said that this death rattle has been hastened by the explosion of blogs and microblog services. But newspaper readership was declining well before the Internet became a mass media as we can see from the this graph depicting average daily newspaper audience readership from 1990 to 2008.
But there is something else at play here. From 2000 to 2003, right in heart of online growth, readership remained steady. It has tailed off significantly since then but it took a while. Why? Perhaps because old habits are hard to break, perhaps it’s just a lagging indicator of the dawning of the digital age. Maybe Gen X and Y prefer bite-sized and instantaneous updates vs. more thoughtful, in-depth coverage that takes longer to produce.
Newspapers are handicapped in that you can’t really do anything else, except sip coffee, while you read them. If you commute by train, it’s fine, but you can’t read while driving. Once you are at the office we immediately log-in and assume our digital identity, probably eating at our desk over lunch while surfing… I mean working. No time for the paper there. That leaves home as the place where you read the paper where there can be even more things vying for your attention. Dinner, family, chores, even more work. I know in my home there is always a week’s worth of New York Times waiting to be read.
In contrast, National Public Radio has experienced steady growth in their audience. NPR reports that in 2008 they had 20.9 million listeners during their fall quarter, up from 14.1 million in 2000. Most of this growth came in their flagship assets, Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. NPR is in depth news and they tackle the tough stories. Not just sound bites or tabloid bait. Their quality is second to none, but I believe some of t his growth is due to their strong interactive efforts and the fact that when you drive you can listen to NPR. Is it the paper medium that is losing favor or is it the effort and cost that is killing it? Listening is easier and when done well, more entertaining than reading. So people still like to go deep with their news.
PC penetration and high speed Internet access is accelerating, newspaper readership is declining and NPR audiences growing. Online newspaper views are not tanking, but they are not soaring, and the experience is overrun by ads and annoying interruptions.
What is driving this fundamental change?
I believe it is the convergence of news, information, multimedia and portability that we have been experiencing over the last few years. On NPR broadcasts they often say, visit our web site to see… Not hear, but see. Online newspapers have interactive graphics and video to supplement their reporting. They even drive readers online for more information or to see a richer display of photos or charts. And of course it’s the ability to carry this around on your smartphone or see it from any web browser that is beginning to make online the spontaneous channel choice.
Older consumers are still holding on to their TV and newspapers for news (80%+ and 60%+ respectively). But the Internet is only at 40% as this slide from Forrester Research shows.
But clearly Web 2.0 is not for 65+ no matter how point and click it becomes. This is where Google comes in. They have been accused of hastening the death of the paper with their black box search algorithms and zeal to digitize all the books on the planet. But they have said that it’s not their fault that papers are failing, or that their online efforts are not catching on. Google contends that online papers are slow to load and difficult to scan on their native sites. To prove their point Google Labs has launched Fast Flip. Their stated objective in about Google Fast Flip is to combine print and web news in an online application that is easy to scan. They have also added community features like voting and the ability to follow topics and interests of friends.
It is a very interesting experiment but users can’t really customize the content. Google has a pre-set list of publishers and your content changes based on, guess what, web searches you perform when you a logged into Google. The idea of making traditional news as easy to browse as the simple magazine wrist flip. Or, fingering through CD’s in the virtually extinct music store is a good one. But this execution needs more refinement.
Where is it gong?
The digital march can’t be stopped. It can’t even be slowed. Paper newspapers are fading away and will be gone soon. But journalism and good reporting will remain. This country was built on Free Press and many countries throughout the world still don’t have that benefit, even well into the 21st century. It is one of our hallmarks and will continue to be. The form may change but the function will not. Consumers need to exercise good judgement on what they listen to, click, read and most importantly believe. The medium has evolved, but the who, what, when, where and why of ethical and responsible journalism has not. Let’s keep that beacon shining bright. More from me about newspapers in a past post here.
- Medimark Research and Intelligence, LLC., via Nielson Online
- National Public Radio
- Forrester Research