The debate rages on – how to save printed newspapers. Try googling the terms “newspaper”, “death” and “internet”, and you receive 10 million results.
So why is this such big news? Are we facing the death of news? Hardly. We are swamped by more news today than ever, and are blessed with digital ways to track issues and filter for our interests. For news junkies, things have never been better.
It seems that it is not the public good that news confers that is at stake, but rather the newspapers themselves. Why is there such a strong urge among newspapers to back the status quo and stick with print? After all, surely the smart money is on the first news gathering organisations to make a break and start doing things radically differently.
The Guardian’s recent decision to release its API might come to be seen as a game-changer, but most of the messages we hear are about “saving” newspapers. Here are five reasons printed newspapers are dead meat, and why they won’t tell you about it:
1) Once people stop reading printed papers, they won’t go back
It happened to me, it’s gradually happening to my colleagues who work in PR and deal with newspapers every day, and it’ll happen to us all eventually. You can get the same information from the newspaper’s website, so why would you bother with the paper? It’s more convenient, I hear you cry. Well, that brings me to the second point:
2) The technology that will allow us to read electronic papers is still in its infancy
You can buy a subscription to the NY Times for the Kindle*. It’s updated daily over Wifi and costs 50 cents a day. This does not even begin to tell you how slick, cheap and flexible e-readers will be in a decade’s time. Before long, you will be able to read something that feels lots like a newspaper, based on flexible, textured e-paper and programmable full colour e-ink. Think the Daily Prophet in Harry Potter and you’re getting close.
3) People buy news, not newspapers
It so happens that since the invention of the printing press, the best/cheapest way to obtain news was via a newspaper. But this is by the by, based on the technology that there was. Technology has moved on, and so will consumers. Thanks to simple platforms like Twitter and RSS, I read news from hundreds of different places each week, based on subjects that interest me, headlines that grab me, and recommendations from people I trust. Newspapers are limiting – imagine going into a restaurant and being offered only set meals instead of a flexible menu. You would not be happy – so why are you happy with newspapers?
4) Demographics are against newspapers
Research shows again and again that young people get information from the internet, not newspapers. That’s all you need to know to tell you that newspaper circulations are going to fall off a cliff. The death of newspapers is not the problem – it’s the death of the newspaper readers that will come to haunt traditionalist newspaper men and women.
5) The picture we have is skewed by vested interests
However bad the situation for newspapers looks, the truth is far worse. The “save the newspaper” lobby – i.e. the newspapers themselves – is desperate to keep the idea of the printed newspaper alive. Why? There are the people. As in any walk of life, the establishment is old and has become stuck in its ways. Newspapers are no different – in the UK, one of the most interesting papers to watch is the Daily Telegraph, as it embraces electronic media. It is no surprise that the editor Will Lewis is only 40 this year.
Then there are the financial investments in the print works. Large print machinery is amortized by the hour. That’s part of the reason it costs so much more to run a short print run than a long one – because the time it takes to set the printer up literally cost money. If the print machinery is amortized according to a 20-year schedule, they had better be used profitably for the full 20 years. Welcome to newspaper world – The Guardian installed its berliner presses on a 25-year schedule in 2005. So they have an interest worth millions of pounds in pushing for printed papers lasting until 2030.
But here’s a fact: as circulations drop, the profitability of printing newspapers drops too. At some point, the cost of printing the paper will become larger than the cost of not using the print presses – and that’s the day the newspapers will die.
* UPDATE (07/05/2009): Amazon have launched Kindle DX – makes my point even more valid ;)