The Changing Face of Newsprint: Goodbye Daily Fish Wrap, Hello

fishy_arizona_republicIs anyone else worried about the future of the newspaper industry? I have been a newspaper reader for most of my life, and even I have found that I am getting almost all of my news online these days. And with the advent of handheld, wireless computers like the iPhone, more and more of us are going to abandon the daily printed product in favor of online information.

If you look at the numbers, the decline and fall of the printed newspaper seems inevitable. According to Reflections of a Newsosaur, a blog site started by Alan D. Mutter, a Silicon Valley CEO, college professor, new media pundit, and former journalist, newspapers are dropping like the proverbial flies. In his latest post, Mutter notes that 142 newspapers ceased publication in 2009, compared to 37 in 2008. Not only does that reflect the loss of 90,000 jobs, but it also means that some communities no longer have access to a local news resource. In other, larger markets, it means that where there were conflicting voices debating in print and offering alternative viewpoints, now there is one newspaper reporting events and shaping public opinion. (Does anyone else remember when the New York Times was actually a local paper and there were a dozen dailies competing for newsstand space in New York City?)

Of course, hope springs eternal in the publishing business. As Mutter points out, the power of the newspaper monopoly and the magic of the bankruptcy court have kept a number of newspapers afloat. I have heard some second-hand stories from those laid off from the San Francisco Chronicle that while the Hearst Corporation does its best to create a profitable newspaper/Web hybrid, it may only be a matter of time before union demands kill the dream.

But as Mutter and the numbers indicate, the optimism of newspaper publishers seems unquashable. As Mutter notes in his previous post:

“A positively effervescent survey of more than 500 newspaper publishers yesterday predicted that advertising sales would drop only 0.2% in 2010 after plunging 28.4% in the first nine months of this year.”

Of course, this is magical thinking on the part of newspaper publishers. Print advertising revenue is drying up as more brands move online. And why not? Isn’t it more efficient to drive a banner ad/pay-per-click marketing strategy with social media support? Shoppers are increasingly going online first, and so is the advertising.

So what are newspapers going to do to survive? I have been watching the experiment that the San Francisco Chronicle, my home town newspaper, has been conducting for more than a decade. SFGate was one of the first online newspaper sites (it recently celebrated its 15th anniversary), and as the Chronicle’s print circulation has slowly been eroding, SFGate has been picking up online momentum. The SFGate site had 124.6 million page hits in September of this year. At the same, the number of regular contributors from the printed newspaper writing for the online site is dwindling. A number or regular columnists and reporters have moved on, and SFGate is bringing in more newswire content, freelance contributors and community leaders to provide content; sources that are cheap or free. And there is still no guarantee Hearst Newspapers will find a way to make SFGate profitable.

Still, I am confident that a new form of successful newspaper will emerge from the current chaos. You may remember the birth of USA Today? At the time, the concept of launching a national news daily seemed revolutionary. That’s nothing compared to the revolution we are witnessing today. And as with most revolutions, those who are flexible and can adapt to changing times will thrive, including professional journalists and public relations professionals.

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