Newspaper Triage: Which American Paper Will Be The First To Kill Its Print Edition?

Posted by: Jon Fine on July 12, 2007

I spent several days last week asking a bunch of newspaper execs and other assorted smart folk variant of the following question:

“Which American newspaper will be the first to stop publishing a print edition?”

For simplicity’s sake, I told everyone to focus only on major markets. The answers fell into roughly three camps.

Camp One: It makes sense to do this in a heavily-unionized, blue-collar (or post-blue-collar) town, where the newspaper has been struggling. The danger is that, well, a lot of readers kind of automatically lose, since the population in these towns skew older. And if I may judge from the experience of the older people close to me (hello, mom and dad and grandma), they may not get in the habit of going online for information until, well, ever. But a company does this to crush costs; sell off the plant and the presses and swallow hard and adjust, quickly, to a shrinking newspaper economy. We’ll call this the “Toledo Scenario” or the “Pittsburgh Scenario.” These are the towns in which the Block family, which owns both papers, recently underwent long and wrenching union negotiations, and claimed that last year its Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lost $20 million.
Flies In The Ointment: If these towns papers’ are failing because of lack of local ad support—instead of going elsewhere for ad options—it doesn’t exactly address the core problem.

Camp Two: It makes sense to do this in a city where the paper is actually doing well—as long as you pick a vibrant locale with lots of young folk and tech-savvy workers. You do this, then, to get ahead of a future readership shift before you start feeling pain, not after. Let’s call this the “Raleigh scenario,” home of Research Triangle Park and a bajillion college and grad students and where—correct me if I’m wrong—McClatchy has been doing decently with its News & Observer.
Flies In The Ointment: Raleigh and its environs are also popular with retirees; see previous for concerns regarding that data point. Also: Why do something that means inflicting serious pain if you’re not already in said pain to begin with?

Camp Three: It makes sense to do this in a top-tier market full of affluent, wired professionals, in which the daily paper is inexplicably tanking. This is the “Boston Scenario” or the “San Francisco scenario;” rich cities, tough times at the daily newspaper, perhaps these places are where the flight to the Web is making itself apparent.
Flies In The Ointment: There are some, even if you pick a paper that’s lost over $300 million since mid-2000, like Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Said flies can be found here, because the San Francisco Chronicle is my choice, and what I wrote about in my BusinessWeek column this week.

I do think within two years, maybe even less, a major newspaper company will go all-digital with one newspaper.

These are my guesses. Yours?

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Reader Comments

Don

July 13, 2007 09:51 AM

The reason why this conversion won't happen in a major city is because a smaller paper will capitalize on existing need for newspapers. The Washington Post won't do this because the Unification Church-owned Washington Times will go ballistic. I believe this kind of conversion will be viewed as a shuttering. My first choice would be the News and Observor and it's the same choice I would have made 10 years ago when they had one of the strongest presences online.

Tony

July 13, 2007 11:43 AM

Seattle P-I will be the first to ditch the dead-tree edition.

Jon Greer

July 13, 2007 12:31 PM

Jon -- in your BW column, you state that the Chronicle claims 265,000 "weekday subscribers." The Audit Bureau of Circulation's latest report shows the Chronicle with 438,000 daily circulation. Why did you make the apparent distinction between home delivery customers and all other circulation? That's a whopping 39% difference and, in my opinion, takes a lot of the wind out of your argument. Here's the link to the ABC report: http://www.accessabc.com/products/top200.htm

Corey Hutchins

July 13, 2007 01:11 PM

Weird side thought, but I was in D.C. recently and saw free newspaper boxes for The Politico on many downtown street corners. The Politico I always pegged as an online paper and had no idea they even ran a print edition. Turns out they offer it in print for free (even though it says $3.50 in the top right corner of the front page--someone forgot to tell the design department?) as a courtesy to their readers in choice markets. Who knows if Slate will ever do the same.

Barbara Vickroy

July 13, 2007 01:19 PM

Notes from a longtime [70 yrs-old] newspaper reader [online and hardcopy]who is a political activist and school board/city council watcher [AKA 'gadfly'] Perhaps if newspapers will think outside of the box and look to the community they will find survival. For example, how about a dedicated section of the paper [similar to sports section] that not only lists the places and meeting times of local boards, councils, and commissions, but a few items from the agenda of the upcoming meeting. Also in this section would be IN-DEPTH coverage of events at the last meeting. [who said what, etc.] I have long made this suggestion to our local paper, only to be told that people are not interested and they can go the the library to find the agenda of next meeting if really interested. When I responded that they can also go the the office of local sports teams to find stats and others news, the answer is "I take your point" and never any change. It is true that it would take a little time for people to become used to having their civic need-to-know respected, but very shortly their atrophied civic-muscles will come to life and the meetings of these "hiding in plain sight" commissions will be attended. Not as many as attend sporting events .... but more than the usual ghost town.

Nick

July 13, 2007 03:24 PM

Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This one spans both Camp 2 and Camp 3. Major market (or so we tell ourselves), tech-savvy, strong online presence with the site, notably an emphasis on blogs both by reporters and readers.

But here's the kicker: Seattle is still a newspaper town, thanks to a joint-opearting agreement between the Seattle PI and the Seattle Times. Each paper has its own editorial department, but they share marketing, circulation and advertising--all of which is provided by the Times. The Times' owner has been looking for a way out for years.

There's continued speculation that the PI might be able to float as a web-only--and the local environment is right for it to happen. The deciding point is likely when Hearst (PI's owner) thinks it can float the online advertising revenues to support the experiment. I'll give it 2 years or less, too.

Jon Fine

July 13, 2007 05:51 PM

Jon Greer:
Good point, and my bad. In my haste to exclude funky/ultra-discounted/"third-party" circulation from my tally--that's the stuff included in circ reports--I entirely neglected single copy sales of the paper. I'm showing around $19 million per year from that revenue stream alone. And let's throw in another $5 million more for the most heavily discounted subscriptions.
$47-ish million from circulation is indeed harder to kiss off than $23 million. But the Chron remains a paper with truly staggering yearly losses. Here is a city with an old model that's truly that badly broken. I still say this is the ripest big-market paper to take the plunge away from print. (No dis on those suggesting the Seattle P-I, which is an interesting suggestion as well.)

Other Tony

July 13, 2007 06:33 PM

As someone close to the situation, I also don't see the Seattle P-I abandoning print altogether in the next few years. It's more likely to print a live-tree edition than to abandon the dead-tree one.

Rhea

July 14, 2007 10:58 AM

This is a great question and one that haunts me, as a longtime print writer/reporter/editor. I am very wired, yet I still prefer reading the paper over getting all my news online. Just because online is ubiquitous, I insist that electronia media is not the correct format for everything. For example, compare the experience of browsing in a bookstore to going to a site like Amazon and ordering a book. The online experience does not compare at all. I'm afraid we will learn this too late, after we've ditched all our print media.

Jojo

July 15, 2007 03:36 AM

I really hope the SF Chronicle doesn't go that way because I will no longer read it. I've been a regular newspaper reader since I was a kid and a Chronicle subscriber since I moved to the SF Bay Area about 15 years ago. In my apartment of 30 units, I am the only person who gets the newspaper. The ONLY one! Whew. What does that say about people?

I think too many just don't have the time to sit down and read a newspaper. In fact, the majority of people have little knowledge or interest in the world around them (clearly indicated by all the surveys showing how few know geography, who world leaders are or know anything about current events). This is why Bush was able to get elected twice. Unfortunately, most people are just sheep, waiting to be led, unable to think, incredibly time constrained, etc. Their lives consist of sleeping, eating, commuting, working at jobs that they mostly dislike and making sure the kids get to and stay in school. They have precious little time for anything else. But this is more a critique on the state of our world, rather than newspapers in general.

I like to read the paper while eating at the dining table. If it were only online, how would I do that? Would they give out free laptops perhaps? And even when looking at newspaper sites online, I have yet to come across one that actually duplicates a real newspaper image with page numbers, column widths, etc.. I think the design of most newspapers has been optimized. The readability has been honed over 150 years. Why not transplant that physical experience to the web? Instead, newspapers bastardize their product by trying to make it fit into a boring and standard webpage design with too many animated ads.

The Chronicle isn't a bad paper. Physically. it does have long-term problems with creased pages that have never been addressed despite many promises to do so. And photos, particularly color, are usually out of focus. But the real problem is that newspaper folks are rooted in the past and have no vision or real understanding of the net. That is why they are unable to migrate to and profit from the web.

And SFGate sucks. Their search engine has been awful for years. They don't have complete image representations of a paper. If I want to look at the whole paper from some date, I can't do that. Furthermore, their "support" people rarely, if ever, answer help requests. I have never been able to get their forums working correctly on Firefox and I have never received any help when I asked for it. So I rarely bother with SFGate.

If I were the Chronicle, I'd be contacting my long-term subscribers, paying them to participate in focus groups that might give them some ideas to work with. But that would probably be a bit too creative for these stagnant newspaper people.

Liz Levy-Navarro

July 15, 2007 07:56 AM

Mr. Fine,

I believe the answer is not just shutting down the print newspapers across the country. Rather it's the introduction of much more aggressive variable pricing by distribution channel, charging much more for consumers how value print based content and charging less for electronic channels.

There is a consumer segment of the U.S. market, perhaps 20-30%, whom are willing to pay much, much more than they do today for "their paper" at their doorstep. And, I would bet the demographics of this segment would be affluent, more educated households. But, they haven't been asked to pay what they value it for in the past. Now, however, the fundamental newspaper business model has changed.

You suggest that closing down San Francisco Chronicle is "big thinking". Closing something down and walking away from it, without replacing what it is offering that is of value, isn't big thinking. Rather, figuring out what does is.

Raising print newspapers pricing significantly, knowing it will contract its market size but offering stable if done right, is.

Tony Wills

July 15, 2007 03:01 PM

The Article should read;

Newspaper Triage: Which American Paper Will Be The First To go free with Its Print Edition?

This will happen with a major daily before the print edition goes away.


phil shapiro

July 16, 2007 04:58 AM

the washington post might credibly be the first newspaper to live entirely online -- for every tenth person in the DC-area has a masters or doctorate -- and the internet was invented in this metropolitan area.

holding back the washington post is a risk averse management whose backbone is the envy of invertebrates.

in terms of cluelessness, you just can't outdo the washington post.
(see http://youtube.com/watch?v=GHVbxsbECCM)

wait a second. you can outdo the washington post on cluelessness. the new york times rises to the occasion splendidly in that regard.

sam

July 16, 2007 11:27 AM

Jojo, What an incredibly condescending comment. "I read the print SF Chronicle, so I know what is going on, unlike all the other drones and worker bees that live in my building." I haven't subscribed to a print paper for nearly 10 years. Yet, almost every day I peruse 20 or more news sites, aggregators, and blogs (including this site). If I just read the local paper, I would have a much more blinkered, tunnel vision view of the world. And I'll bet it is much the same there in SF. So stop kidding yourself that you are some sort of elite because you read a paper newspaper.

Melanie

July 16, 2007 01:01 PM

Pardon me for being old-fashioned, but what do you do when the power goes out? Or when your internet goes down? These problems still happen today in 2007. And reliability is key for news. What about if somehow your access to information is firewalled or net-nannied? There's still a place for a paper product. And people who argue it will save trees don't consider that it costs energy to keep computers powered up all the time.

Jojo

July 16, 2007 04:45 PM

@Sam - you would be one of the few who actually has the time and interest to follow news on the net. The vast majority don't. It's nothing about being "elite". It's just reality. If you work in an office, go around and ask people what they know about current events. Then correlate your answers. You'll find that few people who don't read newspapers actually know what is going on.

The vast majority of people seem to spend their time playing games, watching American Idol and checking on the latest nude photos of their favorite celebrity. Only something like 6-10% of the general public know what RSS is.

Here's the top 100 searches today from Google. Don't see a lot of news items in this list (though wonder what is happening in Brattleboro, VT???):
http://www.google.com/trends/hottrends

Maybe a study will help?
---------------------------------------------------
Infoporn: Despite the Web, Americans Remain Woefully Ill-Informed
Patrick di Justo 06.26.07 | 2:00 AM
Wired Magazine
START

More than a decade after the Internet went mainstream, the world's richest information source hasn't necessarily made its users any more informed. A new study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that Americans, on average, are less able to correctly answer questions about current events than they were in 1989. Citizens who call the Internet their primary news source know slightly less than fans of TV and radio news. Hmmm... maybe a little less Perez Hilton and a little more Jim Lehrer.
http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/15-07/st_infoporn
-------------------------------------------------------

btw: I don't just read the newspaper daily. I also have about 10 magazine subscriptions per month. And I have 37 varied feeds that I follow daily in my RSS reader. Had to cut back from over 50 because it was getting out of hand. And I of course watch the Daily Show and Stephen Colbert [lol]. Oh, and I'm reading a book on Tech Company founders right now also. Oh and I also work a full-time job. How about you now?

DW

July 16, 2007 06:02 PM

Umm..Melanie, if the electricity goes out, how will the papers get printed?

Jason

July 16, 2007 07:20 PM

I think some newspapers will reconfigure. For example the Guardian has an international weekly edition that gets bought and read globally despite very good websites as well. So more editions is more likely.

Perhaps some of the DJ family might go all digital if Murdochs Time magazine quote is to be taken seriously (Close all newspapers down etc. go digital) and he gains control

milbank

July 16, 2007 08:56 PM

Umm..DW, back-up generators. Not every Ozzie and Harriet has one ya know?

Jen

July 17, 2007 08:27 AM

My bets are on either Portland, Oregon's "Oregonian" or the San Francisco Chronicle - esp. San Francisco, since the city is already making some environmental changes that can be seen as inconvenient threats to the American way of life status quo.

Mark Van Patten

July 17, 2007 09:46 AM

Nashville Banner tried it in 1998, but that hardly counts.
I'm surprised Cincy Post doesn't give it a go, as savvy as Scripps is. I think this shoots a big hole in your time frame of 18 months.

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The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.

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