Apr 27

The Future of Print Journalism

Photo Credit: Just.Luc (Flickr.com)

I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I began my professional life as a journalist. In fact, in my younger and stupider days, I even attended journalism school at the University of Illinois for a year and a half before I dropped out to… well, to manage a McDonald’s. (Don’t worry, I eventually finished my degree, but I switched to business and marketing… and then went on to get my master’s in marketing research.)

One of the reasons I was so down on j-school was that I could see the hand writing on the wall even then. The Internet was just starting to take off, and print media were scrambling to get their content online to meet user demand. I had worked as a freelance journalist for sites online, and I knew that the pay was bad, the professionalism of my colleagues was low, and that many of the Web sites producing content were not reputable. (This was before the days of blogs, but it really wasn’t so long ago – I entered journalism school in 2000.) I never really understood why newspapers and magazines were in such a rush to set up shop online and to give the store away for free. It seemed like one of those things that customers were demanding, but which they should have been required to pay for.

But then, to say that ignores the reality of how newspapers operated in the 20th century. Before I gained some insight into the world of print media, I’d always assumed that the circulation fees for newspapers and magazines were their primary source of revenue, and that ads were the icing on the cake. As it turned out, I had it backwards; the “newsstand price” was meant to cover the costs of distribution, while the money that was supporting the paper was coming from advertising. Giving the content away for free online was a logical move, at the time, because it didn’t cost the papers much more to deliver electrons to readers. And any costs that were incurred, the businesses reasoned, could be offset by online banner ads.

Something else you must understand about print media is that circulation numbers and readership demographics have always been all-important, because these are the criteria that guide the pricing of advertising. Mass market magazines, in particular, are designed to deliver niche audiences to advertisers.  But circulation numbers tend to be based on estimates and aren’t always accurate, because few media sources rely solely on subscriptions in reporting their numbers. Often, newsstands have to be taken into account. Yet most magazines or newspapers that make it to the newsstand never make it any further. They’re replaced, destroyed and marked as unsold. As you might imagine, there’s some room in that system for circulation numbers to be manipulated and artificially inflated. And to make things even more inexact, circulation numbers have little ability to determine what the secondhand readership of a newspaper or magazine might be once the primary reader is finished and passes the publication on to someone else.

So, again, going on the Web offered print media publishers a set of valuable new metrics – page hits, unique visitors, length of time on a page, and so forth. Unfortunately, these numbers, too, have never been reliable, because queries from search engines and webcrawlers often register as hits and need to be filtered out. Even in 2010, you can run three different capture tools on a site for a period and get three different sets of results. The data is what we in the research field might call “directional,” but it’s certainly not hard data. (Sites attempting to measure traffic, like Alexa, are similarly unreliable.)

One problem that began to occur as publishers moved on the Web was that print circulation numbers became less valuable. They also began to dwindle as users realized that they didn’t need to pay for content they could get for free. And the Web also offered platforms for classified ads (on auction sites or directories such as Craigslist), both of which enthusiast magazines and newspapers were extremely reliant upon. With less money coming in to print, the businesses operating these publications were forced to either shut down, scale back or explore alternatives to stay in business.

At this point, you may be wondering when I’m going to get to the future of print journalism instead of dwelling on the past. But, you see, all of this context is really important, because the reason that print journalism began its plummet into its current state is because several business decisions were made throughout the industry that seemed to make sense at the time, but which failed to understand the implications on the future. Publishing has been a business for three or four centuries, now; it’s a mature industry that is very resistant to change.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are trying new things. I heard a story on NPR about a new paper called Honolulu Civil Beat, a blog-like news publication that requires a subscription fee to join. The idea is that this virtual newspaper will feature in-depth reporting, but that it will also allow readers to interact with the writers of the story and to see a lot of the “behind the scenes” reporting, including Twitter updates from journalists detailing the stories they’re working on. The subscription fee is $20 a month (with a teaser rate of $4.99 for the first month), both of which sound a little high to me for an online paper, but it’s an interesting concept.

Some print media sources are returning to a subscription structure for their Web sites. But many large print media sources are also hoping that portable devices such as the Kindle, the Nook or the iPad will become a revenue stream by garnering subscriptions that are delivered digitally at a premium price. For example, the New York Times Kindle edition is $19.99 per month, which is a nice savings over the daily print edition ($70.20 per month), but still more expensive than the online subscription fee ($7.95 per month). I’m skeptical that this model is ever going to reach a mass audience, just like I’m skeptical that microtransactions (say, charging $.10 per article) are ever going to take off, because Web users are just not interested in paying for content when there’s so much that’s free for them to read, watch or listen to on the Web.

Unfortunately, what this means for the world of journalism is that some really dark times are coming as fewer and fewer papers can afford to keep a news bureau and organizations like the AP and Reuters will find themselves dwindling as the wire services they provide continue to lose customers. The field of print journalism is about to be splintered into three sub-fields:

Community news. Local papers will continue to exist in some capacity because of laws requiring government notices to be printed and distributed to the public. It remains to be seen if government cutbacks will force these notices online (which would make sense), but right now, they are a viable revenue stream for a small paper in a rural area or a county. I highly suspect that these community papers will be subsidized or run by government rather than private business down the road, which will mean that local news is likely to be whitewashed.

Niche press. Enthusiast or niche magazines and Web sites are going to continue to be around despite the proliferation of information out there because they offer something valuable: targeted advertising. These magazines are also often able to achieve a higher proportion of subscriptions (some paid, some simply mailed out unsolicited!) than traditional newsstand publications, which means that they’re able to deliver more accurate and specific demographic data to advertisers. Plus, these publications are cheap to produce since they rely on hobby freelancers or cheap reprints of existing content.

Legacy press. I don’t expect that Time or Newsweek or National Geographic will be vanishing soon, nor will The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. These are established print sources with good reputations and loyal audiences. They are all also part of media empires that deal with other forms of media (TV, radio, the Web) that can keep them alive and in print. But I do expect that second- and third-tier publications are going to fade away. We may even see some major metropolitan newspapers vanish or merge with newspapers from nearby cities to expand coverage. (It could be feasible, hypothetically, for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Kansas City Star to merge one day and attempt to cover all of the news in Missouri, Kansas and Southern Illinois.) The primary casualty of this movement is going to be local news. Chances are good that local news that’s not of a national scale of newsworthiness is going to either be reported by community newspapers or, more likely, not at all.

If my predictions are correct, you’ll notice that there’s a gaping hole in news coverage: in-depth coverage of local events. Larger towns may be able to sustain an independent news source that covers this beat, but chances are good that many smaller communities will be left in the dust.

My suggestion is that these communities adopt a public news system very similar to what public television and public radio are already doing by providing member-supported content that can be shared freely online.

When you stop to think about it, a member-supported news bureau makes sense. It allows the news organization to be accountable to the community, not to a business or a government organization, and it also takes the burden off the print source to be appealing to advertisers. In other words, it allows journalists to cover the news from a much more objective standpoint than they presently can, and it preserves the institution of journalism.

Raising the money to make this happen is, of course, a huge hurdle. But it can be done. When public television and public radio lost their federal funding over a decade ago, they became more reliant on members and corporate sponsors than they had ever been in the past, and yet they still managed to thrive, because the content they were providing was valuable.

I must admit that I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that journalism should be a for-profit enterprise anyhow. It seems like it goes against the ideals of what journalism is supposed to be, because there are always questions about the conflict of interest presented by being ad-supported. When print media sources are run like businesses, the advertising space is the most important feature, and the content is secondary. That means that when cuts need to be made, good writers and editors who are focused on developing solid journalistic content can be pushed out in favor of those who have a knack for sensational angles and headlines. When corporate interests take over, press releases get printed verbatim, softball questions are lobbed to unethical executives or members of government, and the public makes poorer decisions due to a lack of solid, objective information.

I’ve said a lot more than I meant to with this piece, but I hope it’s been food for thought for those of you who have been reading Marketing Musings. Since the proliferation of media ultimately affects all of us in the marketing profession, it is something we should be deeply concerned about.

What are your thoughts? Post them below!