The Print Media Are Doomed

Surpassed in convenience and economy by online content, printed magazines and newspapers will dry up in the next decade. Pro or con?

Pro: Disappearing Ink

Whether or not print dies, its business model will. Physical wares—newspapers, books, magazines, discs—will no longer be the primary or most profitable means of delivering and interacting with media: news, fact, entertainment, or education.

It’s not that print is bad. It’s that digital is better. It has too many advantages (and there’ll only be more): ubiquity, speed, permanence, searchability, the ability to update, the ability to remix, targeting, interaction, marketing via links, data feedback. Digital transcends the limitations of—and incorporates the best of—individual media.

More important than any of that, of course, is that digital reduces the incremental cost of production and distribution of content to zero. And as every newspaper can tell you post-Craigslist: It’s impossible to compete with free.

The keys to making the transition: Advertisers will realize that their customers are digital and that marketing online, in a post-scarcity economy, must be cheaper and exponentially more efficient and effective. Technology and connectivity will advance, making content an everywhere experience. And print addicts will (sorry to be so blunt) die.

Note that in 2008, online revenue at the Los Angeles Times surpassed the cost of its (reduced) newsroom, making it possible to produce the "paper" as a sustainable digital enterprise without the expense of creating and distributing a physical product. There is the beginning of the end of print.

Con: The Power of Print

Given that I run an online-only news site here in Silicon Valley, you’d think I’d be arguing that print is already dead.

But the technology business teaches you that nothing ever goes away completely. Mainframes, Fortran, and paper all survive, despite PCs, Java, and the paperless office.

What’s really changing is the role of content itself.

Online, it’s participation that becomes the product, with the content merely an ingredient of the real product. And print becomes a great vehicle to promote that new, experiential online product.

Print is physical, and has potency you’d be foolish not to acknowledge: pictures that live outside a screen, copy you can carry with you and leave behind. Glossy magazines with pretty pictures of things you want and the alternative weekly that’s sitting next to the subway or lunch spot will be fine. The Sunday New York Times (NYT) will still be delivered.

Now, it’s also clear that there’s going to be less print, and the old pecking order of online being the handmaiden to print will be reversed.

But you’ll be able to get your newspaper. On Sunday. Mostly. It’s just good business.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Michael Josefowicz

Jeff--

The paradox is that while the production costs of the long tail of content on the web is essentially zero, the ways to monetize that content are still not clear. For the sites that sell stuff/services it is in fact clear.

For ad supported sites with a significant overhead, they are mostly still figuring out how to monetize their content.

My take is that the reason print will both survive and thrive is that the implicit rule of the web is "read for free, pay for stuff/service.'

Consider that regional magazines are doing okay. Shoppers are doing well. Library circulations are up. There have probably never been more book groups on the ground.

It's mostly the news brands that were built on the idea that they had the exclusive power to set the agenda that are having the real problems.

Walter Cronkite is gone...not to return.

Strategery

One would think that doing tasks on the computer and online would have reduced paper use. The opposite has happened. It has become so easy to print that we carelessly waste paper at work, home, and school. Online media will play a bigger role, but print will not go away. Music downloads have not made CDs obsolete. Online text is harder on the eyes than printed text, so I do not see books disappearing anytime soon. Physical print does not require connecting, downloading, or batteries, and is not subject to the whims of poorly written software. You can take a newspaper or book with you, give it to someone else, or set it out in a waiting room for others. Digital media will be their own worst enemy when they require you to log in and commit to license agreements.

Yankee Skeptic

Print media like the NYT, LA Times, Time magazine are the cause of their own pathetic demise and inevitable extinction. (Even with a government bailout.) Their editors and journalists have failed to maintain any journalistic integrity, and have become political cheerleaders for their agenda. For instance, blaming President Bush for everything and blindly supporting the election of Obama. Their "news" reporting is worthless to those interested in just the facts, not opinions. As a result, nearly half of potential subscribers go elsewhere for a fair and balanced reporting of news.

kammer

See you later, losers. They are liberal, they care, and they are outta here.

WallStreetGuru

Print media is old information by the time it is delivered. Online content is how I rely on the latest news developments. I suspect that an increasing number of magazines will go to an online-only format. Newspapers will go bankrupt in the coming years as more people get accustomed to the Internet.

qube

At first I was a strong advocate of the Mac in our printing shop. Later, the web came along and the future of print became clear.

The printing industry, which had been a stable industry for 350 years, has been downsizing ever since.

Print is going the way of the cassette tape. It'll always be around, just not as a major player.

Newspaper editors are not the cause. They're forced along the same downward spiral as junk mail, catalogs, and printing companies.

The choice is to either evolve into digital publishing or go broke. Most classic print managers can't handle the alien world of digital communications.

Mark S. Luckie

As much as I love newspapers, the only time I read them is when I'm at Starbucks waiting on a latte. I do, however, read magazines religiously, mostly because of the easier portability and the thoughtful, in-depth analysis. If more newspapers shrunk down to tabloid size, perhaps they'll stick around a little longer.

Jillian C. York

I don't see how anyone can cry over the demise of print media. Aside from all of the obvious journalistic reasons to support online media, why aren't we discussing the environmental ones? A single newspaper ends up at about 6.1 ounces of carbon dioxide emissions (once you take into account the distribution, etc.); while computers aren't always environmentally sound, as technology improves we will see fewer emissions.

All in all, I say it's about time.

random

Yes, of course, all Tribune publications went broke because their editors went after an extremely unpopular president and his cronies. Sam Zell's mismanagement, which saddled the company with $13 billion in bad debt has nothing to do with it. Not at all.

Raymond

If it were not for insistence of school teachers to talk about newspapers, print might have disappeared entirely. It was a few years ago that you might have remarked: You know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings? Generation Xers would reply: Who's Paul McCartney?

Survival of traditional media will depend on how well the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle keep their brands alive. I turn to the Times to research subjects for books and articles. Almost as frequently, I turn to Wikipedia. I have e-mail subscriptions that help me follow breaking news. I have science and finance Web sites bookmarked. Then I look to the Times for nuances in stories.

Newspapers were never just carriers of news and sports scores. Through editorials and focused news coverage, newspapers and television have dared us to be better. Pointing out social injustice on one part of the page and crime stories below the fold, journalists have pushed us.

There is a journalistic spirit that is portrayed well in films like All the President's Men, and more recently, Lions for Lambs. A worn Meryl Streep still has the fire in the belly, but loses the argument against "just rolling with the administration" version of events. The final scene serves the story well, but it also seems to refer to another lion, a lion that is about to lie down for the last time.

The spirit won't die with print, we hope. But one cannot help but lament the passing of great news institutions. Will there be strong institutions like the Washington Post and New York Times when they are needed again?

Merrill Brown

Well-packaged long-form content and the skills and products associated with magazines have a much brighter future than the outmoded, inefficient daily newspaper. Old "news" delivered on doorsteps in one dimensional paper form without audio and video, community, personalization, depth and data is television delivered via rabbit ears. Do any news consumers actually quarrel that the view WSJ.com and NYTimes.com are vastly superior products to their print counterparts? The printed newspaper needs to become a high-end, high cost supplement to the full service comprehensive web site.

Mant

Print media will always have it's place. Some of the obvious benefits: You can carry it along where you go, lie down on a couch with a magazine/newspaper folded in your hand, and it's easy on your eyes.

Other than this, in case of a magazine, it's really convenient to get a summary of all the important news and views summarized in about 100 pages at the end of the week. Online, there is the problem of information overload.

Richard lee Colvin

My wife and I are journalists, and we subscribe to two daily papers--the New York Times and The Record of Bergen County (NJ). The Record today had 34 pages in four sections. The only ads in the sports section were 1/8th page of adult ads and a one-by-one ad for baseball cards. A handful of staff-written articles. For the first time in the 30 years that I've subscribed to my local newspaper no matter where I lived, I thought: "Do I need to get this delivered every day?" Then I went to the computer to check Twitter, Facebook, the L.A. Times web site, and the Washington Post web site.

mahendra kumar dash

I beg to differ. The lovers of print media always make their own time to read what is in print. Though advanced technology has made electronic media more attractive, we cannot say print is doomed. Print media survived though radio came,TV came, and now the Net. The quality of subject presentation in print media is definitely superior to TV.

Roy Spivery


Thanks Mant, Strategery, and Merrill Brown.

They have it right.

Print will always be more portable so there will always be some demand for it. You don't need any software or a CPU to read it, and you pay by the instance so there's an income stream for the providers.

When I commute on trains or buses (2 days per week), I see everyone reading newspapers, work papers, or magazines. Very few people are using laptops to view the same material.

That said, the "traditional newspaper" business has really sunk itself. Mostly, it's their "star reporter" system, or people who want to be too highly paid for their cache or opinions instead of what will keep their publications profitable.

The reality is that news events do not need such star reporting. Analysis is a whole other matter, and I would pay for that (as I do with commercial television). However, really good analysis, and here I mean explaining in depth the complex areas of news such as education, health care, foreign policy, and economic events.

If traditional newspapers ever did that, they never did it well enough for me to pay for it. I haven't paid for a home-delivered newspaper in years. As I say, for a commute trip, I buy whatever is at the point of sale (i.e. at the stations).

Magazines do a fair job of explaining the complex problems of the day. There's also a fairly rich and competitive market for those products. As for the NY Times and the like, in my opinion, they got what they deserved. Now they, just like America's automakers, have to live within the existing competitive market and make what people are willing to pay for.

Here's an example:

This morning the main story is that Bill Richardson will no longer be the new Commerce Secretary because of some inappropriate bid award/political donations combination during his term as governor of New Mexico. How many ways are there to say those facts? Everyone will have the same story today.

Sometime next week or next month, the magazines will compare many in Washington and in our state governments, etc., that have this same problem and what is happening to them. Those stories, in depth, at length, and with thoughtful analysis, will never appear in newsprint (or at least none to which I have access). I will buy the magazines, and with subscriptions to boot.
-- Roy Spivey

Kads

Print has mobility, view ability, and ad integration features that we still highly value. The next big transition will come with a wireless EInk scroll you can snap open like a switchblade and read in the rain. It will keep all your subscriptions and podcasts up to date, and make 30 minute inter-library loans on the fly. Steve Jobs where are you?

Kostas Papahatzis

I believe that media will have to go through a phase where they will gradually abandon their paper skin and be reborn under their digital twin identity. It is not that most newspapers and magazines have not received the message already. Most are making leaps to keep up with technology advances and incorporate the latest on their Web and mobile sites. They know, and they are becoming ready for it. It is just that technology is not widespread and mature enough yet to deliver an experience equal or better to that of a printed newspaper or magazine. For example:

" rel="nofollow">- the new digital book readers by Amazon

- the new Sony book readers

- mobile phones like Blackberry ‘storm’ or Apple iPhone,

are not yet compatible to collaborate with sites like:

- the Chicago Tribune newspaper

- the Economist magazine

- the People magazine

And deliver a rich experience to satisfy readers enough so they'll abandon the paper identical. The truth is, that at present there is no such device to make this transition easy and give incentives to the readers for jumping from the old to the new.

So my opinion is that:
- Print media decay will be slow
- There will be plenty of time to adapt
- They will be making more money in the end.

David

Printing uses so much paper, plus the chemicals in ink. Soon the "paper" generations will pass away, and the generations that were brought up in the digital era will continue to access and interact with content from ultra-portable PCs and multimedia mobile phones. Eventually, the paper media will pass on, too.

Gerry

They need to learn how to make money from the Internet. That doesn't mean excessive pricing for Internet access to their papers. They need Google help on this, or else they will disappear.

Andre

Printed what media? Oh, those newspapers I buy for my dogs to poop on, because the info on them is at least three to five days old before I receive it, and newspaper is cheaper than dog litter at PetSmart? Newspapers are dead. Magazines are next.

sue

Online content is better for quick research and sound bites, but print media is much better for extended reading. It's easier on the eyes and easier to flip through and understand in depth. Plus you can't curl up in bed with your computer the way you can with a good book.

Scott

The medium is changing for the better but "newspapers" aren't going away if I can get my daily papers as well as novels digitally on a convenient device such as a Kindle or eReader or the new Plastic Logic device.

Ads are viewable on the device just like paper and it opens up new avenues for convenience with linkage to electronic coupons for advertisers. So what if my newspaper comes to me with cutting down trees. Content is the industry, not the medium.

Ed Morgan

I cancelled my subscription to the Washington Post and local Frederick News Post simply because they had become liberal, left wing propaganda rags. 'Nuff said.

Swan

Just like the theaters survived the doom and gloom prophecies of video's rise because of the human aspects of socializing, so too will books and pictures. Sitting down with a good book or having nice pictures to brighten an environment will always be a human tactile need. But newspapers, however, may wither and die. My condolences to the New York Times, may they rest in peace and rot in hell.

Dennis Broe-Ward

It's probably inevitable print will eventurally die, but it'll change shape and purpose many times before it actually does. Israel is dropping leaflets on tunnel locations in Palestine, warning residents to move before they strike. The majority of the world's population does not have digital resources, but as the emerging nations open their borders, a new audience will emerge hungry for global news--China is a good example. Western interests will grasp these opportunities, along with advertisers, to open new markets and build new customer channels. The current economic conditions lead me to believe that digital case will make paper money obsolete, in Western economies anyway, long before magazines and newspapers are abandoned. Over 50% of the population in the west are still not online, mind you. I also suspect some kind of digital "paper" will emerge one day, that handles something like a newspaper, is inexpensive, portable, etc., but switches on when it's picked up and automatically downloads todays news complete with easy touch index listings, videos, and all the other bits and bobs--it'll bring a new reality to a newsflash. It'll aso happen as soon as economies of scale kick in, but we're some way off before the 6.72 billion people living on the planet will be ready.

Dan C

For those digital supporters I have 3 letters--EMP. It is a nuclear weapon detonated in or above the Earth's atmosphere or alternatively an E-Bomb (see below) can create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a high-density electrical field. EMP acts like a stroke of lightning but is stronger, faster, and briefer. EMP can seriously damage electronic devices connected to power sources or antennas. This include communication systems, computers, electrical appliances, and automobile or aircraft ignition systems. The damage could range from a minor interruption to actual burnout of components. Most electronic equipment within 1,000 miles of a high-altitude nuclear detonation could be affected. Battery powered radios with short antennas generally would not be affected. So paper/print is still the winner!

R E H Brown

Hi Chris and Jeff,

Great topic and one close to my heart since I work in ad sales for both print and online media. Agreed, nothing ever goes away completely--even horses and buggies are still around. Radio adapted when TV arrived; print is adapting to online.

TV is having to adapt to online as well as it straddles both media. Online will forever be dependent on an electronic delivery system that at its best will always have limitations. Print is expensive to produce and distribute, and the metrics are not as clear and precise as online. Advertisers have to like the speed accuracy and precision of online readership stats.

Certain information will be better delivered electronically, like business and industrial info. Fashion, travel, and consumer categories will probably not see as much decline as readers like the color and pictures and don't usually consume the media at or near a computer terminal or carry a laptop around so they can look at fashion online. They may actually shop and buy online, but the environment of the magazine is all-important and that will not disappear.

Newspapers will have a big job as they deliver news and information that is easily consumed electronically.
Certain previously profitable areas of ad revenue such as jobs, education, used cars, and real estate have already seen major shifts of budgets into electronic. That will continue to increase.

Inspirational topics such as fashion, travel, food, etc., will continue to have a print bias.

Music and entertainment is all about electronic delivery, which is why Youtube is so popular; online wins this one hands down.

The future of print will be dotted with the corpses of many a periodical, but some will continue to grow and prosper.
Online is still new and has the advantage of continuing technological developments that will make it better, faster, and clearer.

Online providers will also continue to develop new and innovative ways of delivering info online to make it more attractive and appealing.

It is sure to be an interesting future.

Jayanth Paraki

Habits die hard. I spend the first half hour after waking glancing at the headlines of the local dailies along with a cup of tea.

Mid-morning I spend half an hour on the Internet and right-click important news for later scrutiny.

I clearly see a new online tool rightclick.com emerging out of the information chaos. I remember something like doubleclick.com doing good business online.

The future is Internet, Internet, and Internet.

Vinny

The wonder of the Internet is its immediacy and content. With a click, you can get right to the stories or editorials that interest you most and skip all the ads that make you feel out-of-shape and middle-aged.

It's a hard habit to break. First you cancel the dailies, then The Sunday Times. I was in withdrawal for a month, then I didn't miss it at all. I was able to get all that content on the net without the guilt that accompanies a pile of unread Sundays. I do, however, miss having all that paper around for the bottom of the bird cage and litter box.

Regarding weekly magazines, I've yet to cancel any. I may first cancel the business-related ones since I have no problem reading that content off the magazine's web site. However, something more artsy and less time-sensitive like The New Yorker I tend to read at home in a comfortable chair or bed. Not being an owner of a Kindle, I'll stick with the magazine for now. But I have to admit, being able to enlarge the print and read in total darkness does have its advantages. That may be the next step.

mahua

When I wake up, I sit with my father for a cup of tea and wait for when our main gate to open and see who will take the newspaper first. I can't replace this enjoyment with the Internet.

Mary

I get a lot of my news online. But nothing will replace sitting at the kitchen table with my coffee in the morning, reading the local paper, or reading a magazine after dinner in the evening. There is some sort of relationship with paper-information absorption-learning-relaxation that I'll always treasure. For whatever reason, it's missing with a computer.

ara

I like reading when I go to bed. I can imagine when I have to bring my laptop or another gadget to my bed. I will go with my books or magazine to accompany me everywhere. I still love my books or magazines. I think there are a lot of people like me. So the era of printed media is still longer--it depends on the content of media.

Mindspring

Print media will be dead when the postal service dies and not one second before. As long as we still transmit information on paper, advertisers will continue to transmit their information and products on paper.
Ovidiu, CEO

Thomas

Topix has become nothing more than a cyberbullying site. They took the low road by not requiring registration and human moderation, and it is now one of the worst companies on the internet.

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