How Newspapers Must Change to Survive
The death of newspapers seemed impossible, but so did the death of typewriters.
March 13, 2009 — -- Newspapers, ave atque vale (hail, brother, farewell).
Just remember: In the digital age, the death of an industry usually plants the seeds of its resurrection.
The past two weeks saw what may prove to be the tipping point in the history of newspapers. The Rocky Mountain News became the first major U.S. newspaper to close in the face of declining circulation and revenues created by competition from the digital media. Close on its heels may be the equally venerable San Francisco Chronicle, which announced that it would soon be seeking a buyer and, failing that, may go out of business.
This bad news is just the latest in what has been a long, sad downward spiral by the newspaper industry through most of this decade. The newspaper industry gave up denying that anything was wrong about five years ago, abandoned the fantasy that this was a temporary setback two years ago and now -- like a terminal patient completing the Kubler-Ross cycle -- has all-but resigned itself to imminent oblivion.
And, if things keep going the way they have, that's a pretty accurate prognosis.
I was one of the very first people in the national media to predict the death of newspapers (although Time editor Daniel Okrent gave a prescient speech on "The Death of Print" in 2000). I did so in this column in March 2005. Here's what I wrote:
"So, let's finally come out and say it: Newspapers are dead. They will never come back. By the end of this decade, the newspaper industry will suffer the same death rate -- 90-plus percent -- that every other industry experiences when run over by a technology revolution."
I was a little ambitious in that prediction, but not by much. There isn't a single major newspaper in this country that isn't in serious financial trouble. Even the industry's annual convention was cancelled this year. And waiting in the wings, not far behind the Rocky Mountain News and the Chronicle, are at least another dozen papers on the brink -- with the next to go likely the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And you can now buy a share of New York Times stock for less than the price of its Sunday paper.
I also wrote this:
"Before it is all over, the number of 'newspapers' left in America will probably be less than 10 -- and they might not be individual papers but rather new entities created out of the current large chains."
Frankly, these days, that prediction -- especially if we're talking major metropolitan papers (small local papers are still doing pretty well) -- almost seems too optimistic.