Print journalism: don’t erect the tombstones just yet

by Don Corrigan

The “print is dead” mantra has been around for some two decades. That message was brought home to me as a professor at Webster University in St. Louis when my journalism department met to hire a new professor in social media. Also on the agenda were revisions to the curriculum for journalism majors.    Those revisions were needed to better reflect the inevitable move to digital technology in delivering journalism. When I protested that it might be too early to write off print newspapers, despite the encroaching new technologies, a colleague upbraided me severely. He supposedly was just trying to help me get it through my thick skull that we had entered a new media paradigm.

“Don, I like print journalism as much as you do. I used to enjoy getting up in the morning and reading a newspaper with my coffee, but it’s over. I can get it all online now. Print is dead,” he scolded, hammering his fist on his desk to drive the point home. When I tried to debate the issue further, I received some sympathetic glances from other colleagues – the kind of glances reserved for grandma as she tries to hold onto a few keepsakes before being moved from her old home to the retirement center.

I soon stepped down from advising the college student newspaper, the Journal. The departure turned out to be a great excuse for a 2010 retirement party – an old-school happening for an old-school journalist. Rather than leave journalism tutelage altogether, though, I continued to teach media law and started an outdoor/environmental journalism certificate. As for the revised journalism major, two of my favorite required legacy courses were summarily jettisoned: History and Principles of Journalism and Community Reporting. My work down the street from the university at Webster-Kirkwood Times, Inc., publisher of three local newspapers, had been serving as a great resource and inspiration for teaching about covering communities as well as about print journalism operations.

Alas, the “buggy-whip factory” known as Webster-Kirkwood Times continues to prosper to this day. And now, almost a decade after I had to confront the reality that “print is dead,” comes an article in Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) that insists print is not dead with a subhead entitled, “The Revenge of the Real.” The article in the 2016 fall-winter issue notes that it may actually be digital that is dying on the electronic vine after years of newspapers trying to find a business model that will make digital news profitable, or at least self-supporting. According to the CJR article by Michael Rosenwald, digital may be working for a few large national newspapers, but for regional newspaper businesses all the Facebook, tweets, apps and websites are a bust. In the future, digital may just involve “add-ons” for the base print products, included as a benefit for readers, but definitely not “profit centers” meant to sustain the franchise.

As the 2016 CJR article notes: “The reality is this: No streamlined website, no ‘vertical integration,’ no social network, no algorithm, no Apple, no Apple Newsstand, no paywall, no soft paywall, no targeted ad, no mobile-first strategy has come close to matching the success of print in revenue or readership. And the most crucial assumption publishers have made about readers, particularly millennials – that they prefer the immediacy of digital – now seems questionable, too.”

CJR goes on to quote Iris Chyi, a University of Texas professor and new media researcher. Chyi observes: “The (supposedly dying) print edition still outperforms the (supposedly hopeful) digital product by almost every standard, be it readership, engagement, advertising revenue, and especially willingness to actually pay for the product.” Chyi examined data collected by Scarborough, a market research firm owned by Nielsen, for the 51 largest U.S. newspapers, finding that the print edition reaches 28 percent of circulation areas, while the digital version reaches just 10 percent. (And it is a business model that still pays the bills, including salaries.)

‘Thriving’ print

There’s no question that the big guys in the newspaper world have been weathering tumultuous times. Some have been saddled with debt from acquisitions made when newspapers were at their peak. Others have more recently been sold at bargain basement prices to new owners without journalism backgrounds. Many of these owners have continued to hack away at the print product; continued to cut remaining staffers; and, continued to put resources into digital platforms that have yet to produce significant revenue after years of experimentation with pop-up ads, paywalls and digital-first strategies. It’s a formula that has failed to stop the decline in readers and loss of circulation. The trade and general media focus on these “big troubles” at big newspapers has obscured the fact that print as a whole is thriving.

“Far too much emphasis has been placed on digital and national media,” said Tim Bingaman, president and CEO of Circulation Verification Council (CVC). “And very few companies have been able to produce meaningful regional or local editorial content on a digital platform and monetize it for significant profit.  However, local and niche print continues to be very profitable.  Interestingly, much of the digital content we analyze is actually sourced back to traditional media sources.  Much like radio stations were famous for reading the newspaper as their news content, we see the same thing in the digital world (where original print stories now become the content). Print is not dead.”

Bingaman and other industry observers note that people need to keep in mind that 97 percent of all U.S. newspapers have circulations below 50,000, and about 85 percent of all newspapers are weeklies. Collectively, the “community newspaper” sector accounts for more than 70 percent of total print newspaper circulation in the U.S. and 97 percent of newspaper titles. Two-thirds of U.S. weeklies have circulations below 10,000 (as do 45 percent of U.S. dailies). Any analysis of the “newspaper industry” that overlooks the community-newspaper sector, especially the weekly newspaper sector, is going to be inherently flawed and grossly misleading. And analysis that overlooks 97 percent of newspapers may miss the fact that print is holding its own and in many sectors is actually thriving.

“Trends vary greatly depending on the type of print measured,” said Bingaman.  “Daily newspapers and large national consumer magazines continue to lose significant print circulation and those losses receive a majority of the attention in the media industry.  However, a much larger segment of print – community newspapers, shoppers, city & regional magazines, business publications, and niche publications like parenting, 50+ lifestyle, ethnic, and special interest publications are thriving and have very stable or even growing circulation numbers.

“For instance, community newspapers, typically free weeklies, have lost less than 1 percent of their circulation in the last decade.  City and regional magazines, and business publications have also fared the poor economy well with less than 2 percent circulation loss.  Most of these losses come from publishers simply trimming expenses on less valued circulation types.  Niche publications have fared well overall with a 1.5 percent circulation increase in the last decade.  The most important item I take from these numbers is that intensely local community based print is thriving. The ‘print is dying’ message is so prevalent because of the high profile of major losses from large metropolitan daily newspapers and national consumer magazines,” Bingaman stressed.

Guy Bergstrom, a writer for About.comMarketing, continually declares,  “Don’t Believe the Hype: Newspapers Are Alive and Kicking.” Community papers have negotiated the new digital era and America’s economic downturn quite well. Newspaper trade organizations such as the Independent Free Papers of America (IFPA), the National Newspaper Association (NNA) and the Inland Press Association (IPA) are all working to get that message out to readers and advertisers: “We’re Just Fine And We’re Not Going Away.” These groups say it’s vital to get this information out, because the drumbeat about the demise of print can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not countered.

                            READOUT: Is digital “dying”?

Perhaps newspaper trade groups need to go on the offensive and declare: “digital is dying.” There’s plenty of evidence for such a new mantra on digital. A number of attempts have been made to challenge the dominance of the hyper-local, print fare of community newspapers with internet products, foremost among the challengers is AOL’s Patch sites, which have practically disappeared after losing tens of millions of dollars. Jock Lauterer, a community journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, makes the important point that print newspapers are retro and after a day of working in front of video screens all day, many readers want a return to retro. They want “the old portable, clippable, hold-and-fold legacy media,” according to Lauterer.

Digital news advocates and the so-called “technological utopians” will argue that print does not have a future because the kids are all on their smart phones and many don’t know what a print newspaper looks like – they regard it as a relic of some bygone era. Bingaman of CVC insists that young people may rely on smart phones now for information, but they will take up the dependable print newspaper habits once they settle down in a community and want to know what is going on in their schools and at the city council. Bingaman said CVC has the data to prove his contention.

“In 1999 CVC audited 516 community newspapers and shoppers in North America.  In 2016 we audited 2,976 papers and 463 of those original publications are still with us from 1999. In 1999, 7 percent of their audience was made of readers under the age of 25.  In 2016, that number for those same 463 papers is 6 percent. The under-25 age category has never been a large consumer of print, and never will be,” Bingaman said. “However, for community-based publications, young people begin to read these publications as they become involved in their communities.”

“As they buy cars, get married, buy homes, and have children they are drawn into reading about their community,” Bingaman continued.  “In 1999, 17 percent of readers were between the ages of 25-34. In 2016, that 25-34 demographic is 18 percent. This leads me to believe that community-based publications continue to replace their aging demographic with a young audience as they have in previous decades.  As a matter of fact, readership of community-based publications has increased from 74 percent in 1999 to 77 percent in 2016.  Overall, a larger percentage of households are reading this form of print than they were in 1999.”

Bingaman is echoed by Bill Reader, an associate professor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and a longtime member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper editors (ISWNE). Reader said millennials may be digital natives who prefer digital delivery when available, but they are not as print-averse as many media experts would have us believe. Offer them a good print product, and they’ll pick it up.

“The best model for reaching young people today is digital-only for routine daily news, sports scores, and other ‘hot news’ items,” said Reader. “However, they will use higher-quality print news offerings for long-form reporting, analysis, and opinion. Special sections are still going to thrive in print with young people, if they are done well. Getting a new generation of talented, trustworthy journalists to embrace and work on community newspapers will be the key for the print future.”

No one makes a stronger case that print newspapers are in the catbird’s seat, while digital is dying as a sustainable news technology, than Iris Chyi, who is heavily quoted in the 2016 CJR article. In her 2015 monograph, “Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles toward Inferiority,” Chyi provides plenty of data to show that digital news products have fallen far short of expectations. Companies that hoped to move their news content from print to only online during the past two decades are finding that 85 to 90 percent of their revenue still flows from the old, legacy print product.

The problem is that most assumptions on the all-digital future have never had any reliable empirical support, according to Chyi. The result is that during almost two decades of trial and error, bad decisions were made and unfounded strategies adopted. The audiences for news were totally misunderstood and the original print product deteriorated through all the attention and experimentation with digital products that no one would pay good money for. Part of the problem is readers viewed the digital products as available, but inferior. And they were conditioned not to pay for them.

In the conclusion of her study, Chyi contends that newspaper managements have been wandering in “a digital jungle” for 20 years with no sense of direction, doing what everyone else is doing rather than doing what is best for the print newspaper, the anchor for their operations. She offers newspaper managers a number of directions for finding the way out of the confusing and unprofitable digital jungle. Among her points:

  • Accept the fact that online display ads are not effective and may never be very effective, no matter how obnoxious and annoying newspaper businesses make them.
  • Acknowledge that print newspapers don‘t have to die, unless they are mismanaged or ignored for the new shiny things out there. In many communities, readers still will pay $300 to $500 a year for the “dead tree” format.
  • Realize that consumers view the digital news product as inferior, much like fast food or ramen noodles. Not many are interested in actually paying for digital news products.
  • Concede local newspapers are never going to benefit from the economies of distribution of a Google or a Yahoo operation. Chasing readers with multiple platforms will wear down your journalists, erode your print product, and can be a waste of valuable resources.

READOUT: Academics need to be more responsible

Chyi argues that newspaper owners need to listen to their managers, editors and reporters who increasingly lament: “All the effort that is going into the website is hurting the print edition. Could we just not do it?” She insists that newspaper owners, who get upset looking at all the young digital natives on their mobiles, need to realize that they are using their phones for entertainment and not for news. To retain or attract younger readers, newspapers need to focus on noteworthy and essential content – and not fret about the means of distribution.

Chyi and other media observers, such as Marc Edge, author of ‘Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers,” have clearly seen the beacon of light through the dense digital jungle. To use another such metaphor, they can see the forest through the trees, and they can actually see that the dead-tree media still prosper. Newspapers have an important place in the media mix when not burdened with all the illusions about their supposedly inevitable digital future.

Journalism academics can be forgiven if they have fallen under the spell of the digital utopians. Academics generally are not “bottom line people” who worry about the business model as they embrace and explore the new media technologies. Also, journalism academics are continually attending webinars, seminars and conferences where the media high priests preach the gospel of digital distribution. At the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conventions, I’ve listened to the experts tell us for years that if news companies were not on a website within two years, they would die. Five years ago, I listened to the experts tell us that if news companies were not on mobiles within two years, they would die. In both presentations, I asked the experts what the business model is for these platforms. The answer in both instances: “The business model will come. The important thing is that you have to be there when it arrives.”

Obviously, journalism academics are as lost in the digital jungle as are many newspaper managers. They’ve all been warned over and over about the coming print apocalypse lurking out there in the bush, but it has yet to materialize. So what should academics be telling their journalism students? Tim Bingaman of CVC suggests that courses in the new media should not discount the old media. A course in history and principles of journalism should show students that newspapers survived radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and now the Internet with the arrival of a new century.

Rem Reader at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University believes that far too much journalism instruction ignores or is dismissive of the community press. Journalism students who are not exposed to the community press are often surprised to learn about the diversity of local and niche media that exists today, the important roles they play in society – and the jobs that are available with this legacy media.

“Journalism professors really do have to get their heads out of their … sand boxes,” said Reader. “Too many J-school profs are just as ignorant about the community newspaper sector as their students. The irony is that most J-school students work in community journalism while on campus – student newspapers, student-run magazines and websites, student-run radio and TV news shows – but don’t even realize it. Many do their internships with community media and community newspapers continue to be a steady source of entry-level jobs. There is digital innovation in the community press, too, and lots of success stories to share.

“There are plenty of examples of ‘best-practices’ coming from the community press in terms of reporting, editing, visual and multimedia journalism, professional ethics and more,” added Reader. My advice for J-school profs is to contact their state press associations and ask them to name the five best “small newspapers” in the state, and then for the profs to get to know those papers and their staffs. Invite them to campus to talk to classes.  They will attest that print is not dead.”

READOUT: Community and daily journalism differ

Jock Lauterer, who wrote the book on community journalism with the book, “Community Journalism,” contends that students need to know successful community journalism differs markedly from the troubled big city journalism. Community journalism works because it involves relentless local coverage that helps a community define itself. Community journalism works because it’s extremely personal as the reporters live among those whom they cover and feel a special accountability to them. Community journalism works because the wider-frame national and global issues are localized.

Although Chyi, Reader, Lauterer and other journalism academics are adamant that print is not dead, they would certainly not counsel students to ignore the news successes of the digital age. Digitalization does seem to be working for larger, national news operations. Digitalization has allowed for interesting websites that aggregate news and features for reader convenience (although sometimes violating original copyrights). Digitalization has provided useful add-ons for newspaper operations, from websites to Facebook to the tweets that provide a heads-up for late-breaking stories. Above all, digitalization can improve reporting. Computer-assisted tools allow reporters to gather more data, contact more sources, check more facts and write better-researched stories. There is, however, a flip side to all this, as Reader points out.

“The flip side of digitalization is that there has been a proliferation of fake news, advertorial, and crassly ideological garbage on the web. The culture war in the U.S. also has led to an across-the-board “dumbing down” of the general population, to the point where they only believe media messages that confirm their own personal biases. They are openly hostile toward media that challenge their beliefs,” Reader said.

“This is not new in human society. Francis Bacon lamented such willful ignorance and narrow-mindedness in the Novum Organum, first published in 1620: superstition, stubbornness, dismissing ‘difficult” information,’ gravitating toward entertainments and trivia, etc. The Internet has empowered those who would exploit such willful ignorance using the trappings of ‘real news,’” Reader contended. “The challenge for journalists today and in the future will be to stand, always, with integrity, bravery, and tenacity. That is how real journalists will stand apart from charlatans, and how community newspapers will stand apart from the putridity of cable television and crassly ideological websites.”