Let's Check In On the Future of NewspapersS

As this whole "internet" thing has grown more popular over the past, oh, 15 years or so, the newspaper industry has declined. That's because the newspaper industry, at some point in the past, decided to give away its product for free on the internet. They figured that somehow, someday, this would make them money. It did not. Now, we can put a figure on just how badly this bet has failed.

The basic problem of the internet for newspapers has long been clear: the new ad revenue that comes in from their websites is far less than the print ad revenue they lose as a result of their readers' migration to the web. The new revenue stream is smaller than the old revenue stream. Hence, economic decline. After a decade or more of giving away all content for free as a standard practice, more and more newspapers are now beginning to realize that they need online paywalls. Still—that's more of move to protect the brand than to bring in an amount of revenue that will have a real impact on the bottom lines.

A new study of more than three dozen newspapers from the Project for Excellence in Journalism has quantified this phenomenon: "the papers studied are losing seven dollars in print advertising for every one dollar they are gaining in new digital revenue."

Seven to one. That's not a ratio that's going to be overcome before a newspaper runs out of money. Common sense, therefore, tells us newspapers will either, A) shrink down to shells of their former selves; B) find new revenue streams to replace lost print ad revenue, or; C) some combination of the two. Which is exactly what has been happening, for years, in the newspapers business! The whole thing is unavoidable. Briefly, this is what the next half decade or so will bring to the newspaper industry:

1. Staff sizes will continue to shrink, although slowly.
2. Mid-sized metropolitan dailies (in cities that are large, but not New York/ LA large—Philly, for example) will fold, occasionally. This will be profoundly weird for residents of those cities.
3. Online paywalls will become ubiquitous on all halfway-decent newspapers.
4. The growth of digital readers will provide a heartening new injection of revenue, though not enough to replace lost print ad revenue.
5. At some point during the next decade or so, the newspaper industry will stabilize. Online ad revenues and paywall revenues and other associate revenues from digital readers will stabilize, and newspapers will have a solid idea of how large their market really is, and they will staff accordingly, and everything will be more or less normal again. Newspapers will survive, but will never again be the massive, market-dominating monstrosities they were in the past century. Those days are gone forever.

In the meantime, if you want to be a reporter, I hear Buzzfeed is hiring.

[PEJ]