Print’s financial future may last longer than expected, according to new reports

As this year begins, three notable reports share the same conclusion about the future of news: The path we are on is uncertain and debatable. But two of the three studies now see an extended economic shelf life for print, even as audiences swing digital and the search for viable digital news products continues.

Exhibit A: Earl Wilkinson, the globe-trotting executive director of the International News Media Association. A year ago, his speeches and annual summary report were focused on the difficulty of culture change at newspaper organizations and the need for faster digital innovation.This year’s outlook report, published in December, was subtitled “The Print + Digital Dynamic.”

Getting ready to board a plane to Karachi, Wilkinson described the new emphasis as a recalibration, not a reversal, of his digital evangelism. His email reads:

When the industry conversation was “print, print, print,” I simply suggested to publishers to put a little digital in their lives. If it was stated in a way to suggest that this meant print was dead, then that was a sin of omission on my part.

In a way, we are too obsessed about print vs. digital. It’s a science fiction discussion whose practicalities can be brought to earth with a few pin points in time. Will publishers be primarily print or digital in the year 2100? Silly question, digital. Will publishers be primarily print or digital in the year 2013? Silly question, print. For every publisher on this planet, the cross-over point from print to digital is sometime in the next 87 years. I would make big bets on this, and so would the vast majority of publishers – even in print-centric markets.

So you have to separate the “will it happen” question from the “when will it happen.” Where your crossover point comes is the trick, and your game as publisher is accelerating resources when that time comes for you and your market.

Because American advertisers may have lost confidence in American print newspapers in 2013 and thus American publishers are looking to accelerate revenue diversification now, now, now, does not mean that Indian publishers should stop what they are doing successfully in print. There are global trends driven by technology adoption and education/demographic levels, but the timing is going to be very, very different country by country.

In this year’s INMA Outlook report, I simply state the obvious: Where we are across a global canvas is neither print nor digital. We are a “print + digital” industry. So how do we package this hybrid industry in the minds of consumers and advertisers?

Small-market American papers, like those in India, may also keep the print emphasis for the foreseeable future, as Warren Buffett has suggested when explaining his continuing acquisitions. The outlier Orange County Register is on a print-first trajectory, rehiring dozens of reporters and editors while folding its tablet product, Peel.

At the end of Wilkinson’s report (available free only to INMA members but summarized here) pitches “relevance over quality” in deciding what content to publish. I questioned that too. Isn’t giving readers the feeling that they are “in the know,” thanks to news reports and ads, still the core of a strong brand? And doesn’t high-quality story-telling remain something people will pay for?

Wilkinson sent this rejoinder:

On the editorial side of our industry, we love this big, wild, chaotic, gregarious feast of news and stories and opinions about anything, anytime, anywhere slapped together in a package – one serendipitous moment in print after the other. Our older, home delivery subscribers still love that form of story selection and storytelling. We package this often in a word like “quality.”

I simply suggest that given more defined roles of news publishers – namely metropolitan dailies shifting roles from being their local community’s window on the world to being their local community’s window on their community – that “relevance” should have equal footing to the historic view of “quality.”

I get frustrated when journalists react to “quality” vs. “relevance” as they hear this as the “dumbing down of news.” Absolutely not true.

I love the “Trekking Through Zimbabwe” story like the next guy, but maybe I need to know more about the graft in city hall or the rumored zone change that’s going to lower proper valuations. That’s a relevance issue about managing editorial resources.

Maybe we need to invest less in ponderous, text-based analyses and more in data journalism that can bring transparency to words. Maybe we need to invest more heavily in tagging content so that we can target based on tastes, trends or even stated preferences.

Is it heresy that we prioritize finite editorial resources based on the consumer’s perception of relevance?

Prioritizing is not heresy, but I still think that the well-told story, close to home or further away, is never out of style. Recent examples would include The New York Times’ multimedia Snowfall avalanche extravaganza, Anne Hull’s Washington Post profile of a Rust Belt teenager trying to escape poverty or Kelley Benham’s three-part feature on her micro preemie baby daughter in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times.

I think metro readers expect coverage of a hot story like Manti Te’o and the dead girlfriend hoax, even though one might argue news and commentary is easily available other places online.

Utility is a tricky concept. Should newspaper organizations be running daily movie listings when anyone with a computer can call up Google’s superior digital version, complete with trailers?

The other reports

Wilkinson’s report is gleaned from conversations with publishers all over the world. It gets a seconding vote from a scholarly piece, “Ten Years That Shook the Media World” by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

As the title suggests, Nielsen is not in denial about digital disruption, but he concludes that the print to digital transition will play out over decades rather than just the next few years.  He notes that scribes stayed in business for 100 years after the invention of the printing press and that the two forms of ecclesiastical publishing co-existed with relatively little friction.

Now, Nielsen writes, “The direction of travel is clearly toward ‘new’ media, but ‘old’ media are still very much with us and do not appear to be about to disappear wholesale.”

He notes that the most prominent U.S. closings — the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer — were second newspapers in two-paper metro markets. Fewer U.S. titles closed in the 2000′s than in the 1980′s or 1990′s.

In the five European markets Nielsen studied — Germany, the U.K., Sweden, France and Germany — there was only one major closing in the last five years, France Soir. (Financial Times Deutschland was shuttered two months after the report was published in October.)

Nielsen is a specialist in political science as well as business and journalism and sees a direct line connecting weakened newspapers to fewer professional journalists employed to less reporting that informs democracy. He also argues that very low sales prices mean rich individuals can now buy a newspaper in large part to advance their political views or pet causes.

Emily Bell, C.W. Anderson and Clay Shirky agree with Nielsen, to a point, in their November report for Columbia Journalism School on “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.” They write:

Some of these (legacy) organizations may be able to survive with their newly lowered expenses, but the reason to care about the continued health of legacy news organizations has always been about the public service they provide; organizations that shrink without trying to take on new, cheaper capabilities are abandoning at least part of that public service mission. They will also attract fewer competent journalists.

Unlike Nielsen and Wilkinson, however, the authors, as their title suggests, think legacy media is cooked as a business already and will be a negligible part of the journalism ecosystem as soon as 2020. Their hope is that surviving legacy organizations and the host of digital-only start ups will find new ways to produce essential journalism less expensively while developing sustainable business models.

However, they don’t seem wildly optimistic and fear we may be entering a bad time for journalism, as Shirky put it in an earlier manifesto, when the old order has collapsed but the new has not yet fully taken form.

Digital journalism needs the singular focus of champions like Bell and Shirky, even if they generalize their reading habits to the exclusion of older print loyalists and the many of us who like to get news from all of the above and television too.

But the fresh wave of newsroom cuts already this year also raises the specter that some print survivors will be shells without the resources for informing public life or good storytelling, for that matter.

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