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24. The Dire Future of Newspapers

24. The Dire Future of Newspapers

Just how bad is it?

Early in 2009 CNN sat down with Phil Bronstein (formerly San Francisco Chronicle), James Warren (Chicago Tribune), and Leonard Downie (Washington Post) to talk about the future of newspapers. They were all former editors of their respective papers and what they had to say was telling.

The first point, made by Phil, is that newspapers have for too long been separated from the public that they are around to serve. Before the web blew the doors open, there was wall, with journalists on one side reporting the news and telling people how to feel about it and the public on the other, lapping it up. Never the two shall meet. When the public decided to get involved in this dance, the reporters weren’t ready for it.

James goes onto agree but points out something that is often ignored when talking about the fate of the “newspaper,” and that is if you look at both the print and online circulations of most major newspapers you will find that the total number of readers has actually increased, substantially. While this is true, the real concern is not whether people will read the news but how much they will pay for it. Advertising on the web has traditionally brought in far less money that print ads, and the increase in number of readers does not make up for shrinking subscriber numbers, loss of classified revenue to sites like Craigslist and Monster and reduced advertising revenue as expensive print ads make way to cheaper online ads.

The final question is the one that many people, especially those who are deeply involved with the web are asking, “why didn’t they see this coming?” Leonard again points out that the problem isn’t in the eyeballs but in the business models, “…it’s a copycat industry,” he states when he describes how newspapers approached the web.

That, I think, was the core problem. Newspaper’s saw what was happening (we’ll look at the story of Monster later) but they refused to accept that they could be unseated. It’s hard to blame them, going into the 90s, newspapers were experiencing record profits — ad sales were up, classified sales were up and they had cash to burn – it would be a pessimist indeed who would say that in 15 short years they would be on the verge of death.

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