This week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that it is cutting its print publication schedule back to three days a week and laying off staff in an effort to remain financially viable. It's a sad step for a storied and respected newspaper. It is also, on an industrywide scale, a completely expected evolution. Let's briefly review the recent past, and the future, of newspapers.
- The internet happens. Printing information on paper once a day and throwing it on everyone's doorstep is no longer the most efficient means of distribution. Still, newspapers press on!
- Newspapers, by and large, decide to give away their product free online. Paid circulation falls. Woops.
- With declining print circulation and ad revenue and increasing competition from new online news sites, newspapers across America engage in mass layoffs. Some newspaper companies go bankrupt. Others soldier on, feebly.
- Two-newspaper towns all become one-newspaper towns.
- And now, with the Times-Picayune, we have reached the perfectly logical evolutionary step of a major city that does not have a print newspaper published every day. Next will be a major city that does not have a print newspaper published any day. This will not be too far away.
Is there any hope? Of course.
- Major national prestige papers like the WSJ and the NYT are irreplaceable. They will struggle for a while, and they may emerge in a reduced form, but they will survive.
- Print will gradually die off, though it may take the death of the last generation of anti-internet dead-enders to kill it for good. But it will die off, eventually, like all inefficient things that are surpassed by a better technology. Before dying off print newspapers will almost certainly go through a cute boutique throwback cool phase. It won't last forever.
- The number of people employed in the newspaper industry will continue to shrink for a while, and it will never return to the huge staffing levels of its heyday. There will be jobs elsewhere in journalism, though.
- The good news is that while the newspaper industry itself is shrinking, the public's appetite for journalism is not. We're in a transitional phase, in which everything is fucked up while everyone figures out the proper economic and journalistic models necessary to shift from old technologies to new technologies. Eventually journalism will be properly monetized online, and the media industry will stabilize. Newspapers, most of which have a virtual media monopoly in their local markets, are well positioned to survive—if they manage this transitional phase properly, and don't allow sharper upstarts to upstage them. What does that mean? Basically it means doing what Warren Buffett has told his own company's papers to do: "take on no debt that makes them vulnerable, expect to charge for online content somehow and make sure an intense local focus is in their DNA."
- So newspaper just need to grit their teeth, buckle down, and other cliches; embrace their inevitable transition to online news in the smartest and most forward-thinking way possible; and pull through until paying for online news is an accepted practice. Or, get bought by a rich guy. Or, preferably, both.