Most of what follows is pretty close to conventional wisdom, at least among the folks I talk to and read. I don’t have any particular claim to expertise: this is the result of closely following a decade or more worth of news about the news, thinking as deeply as I can, and absorbing what I read, hear and see on the streets. It doesn’t cover everything about newspapers, but it represents a ground floor of sorts and, as always, the chances that I am wrong, in large or small measures, is not insignificant.
Newsprint is with us for a while yet.
Yeah, inevitably, the print format will go away, but it remains a potent method of delivering information quickly and relatively cheaply. Habit plays a role, too, whether it’s the old habit of picking the thing up off the doorstep, or the newer one of grabbing a free daily on the way into the subway. Long term, traditional newsprint economics do not compute; for now, they do, although shakily.
The current newspaper – thinner, lighter staffed, its newsrooms serving print and online masters – appears to be the future newspaper, too.
Creation of large chains by assuming large debt, credit crunches, recession and internet disruption have created current conditions but they mask, to some degree, changes already afoot, including the long downward drift in readership and the slow atomization of mass audience. I remember numbers from the first decade of the century: Advertising revenue was increasing for all Canadian media, but slowest of all for newspapers.
Newspaper chains, most emerging from bankruptcy, still drag around debt and, in some cases, still lose money. It seems inevitable that revenue for newspapers will remain smaller than it was; the “missing” money will continue to be reflected in smaller-staffed, skinnier publications. “We’ll get over this and get back to where we were” is an unsupportable wish. Post-recession recovery will likely not take newspapers back to where they were.
There is no magic bullet.
I’ve heard from people who should know better, that “someone” will figure it out, as though there is a single cure for the manifold and differing illnesses affecting newspapers here and there. (To their credit, those who should know better and are saying this, often have a wistful tone.)
It’s easy to be seduced by the fact that newspapering was, with minor variations, the same everywhere, but that may no longer be the case. Consider paywalls and you run up against issues that range from selling the public one the idea of a paywall for a site run by a newspaper that is distributed free of charge, to the question of who will pay and how much, not universally, but in the local marketplace. (There’s no argument that journalism, and particularly newspapers, are vital to society, but “somebody needs to pay us because we are important” is not a business model.)
The biggest difficulty publishers face, I think, is that, absent the magic bullet, there needs to be a basketful of methods for funding the beast and that they, generally, can’t depend on someone someplace else putting together a single basket that will serve them all.