Digital and Social Media May Really Be Killing the Print Industry

October 29, 2014
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Recently, someone knocked on my door around 7:30 at night. Living in a neighborhood more polite than friendly, I assumed the knock came from either a marketer or an evangelist. I found a representative from the local newspaper.

A former journalism major, I used to read the newspaper religiously and subscribed to multiple magazines for both entertainment and news. Those subscriptions lapsed years ago.

Today, I keep up with my world through stories and video I find online from both journalistic and non-journalistic sources. When I do consume traditional news (morning TV or a paper in the waiting area of a doctor’s office or auto shop,) I find mostly stale stories that I discovered (sometimes days) earlier online. National morning news shows seem to spend as much of their time discussing popular YouTube videos as they do the news of the day.

The newspaper rep tried to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He wanted to give away the newspaper…for free. The conversation went something like this.

“Would you like to read the paper, sir?” he asked. “I can give you the weekly paper for free. We’re offering this to everyone in your neighborhood.”

“I’m really busy during the week,” I said. “I probably wouldn’t read many of them.”

“We could do the weekend paper instead…Friday through Sunday…still for free.”

“Really free?”

“We’d need to charge two dollars for delivery, but yeah…otherwise it’s free.”

I considered this for a moment, but ultimately declined his offer. I still wouldn’t read the weekend paper very much. I didn’t want to waste the paper itself and honestly didn’t find enough value in the printed product to pay even $2 a week.

Some journalists are bloggers but not all bloggers are journalists. I believe in the power of a free press and its importance in our society, but the industry as a whole must figure out how to modernize and better monetize. The marketplace economy places no value on good intentions. In a world where information flows freely, newspapers must find new ways to profit from the services they provide.

Plenty of studies show newspaper readership declining across almost all age groups while the Newspaper Association of America argues that “the vast majority” of U.S. adults reads newspaper content across “a range of technology platforms.”  According to a recent post from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, tactics undertaken by newspapers to preserve their print editions have included:

  • Partnering with other newspapers to share coverage and content

  • Eliminating delivery of the newspaper to outlying areas

  • Discontinuing some features, such as stock listings

  • Shrinking the size of the paper

  • Eliminating editions entirely on days that attract the fewest advertisers and readers

The 2013 State of the Media report noted that newspapers should consider wider adoption of digital pay plans to stem decreasing advertising revenues.  These pay plans typically have three elements. First is the creation of a paywall for readers to access content. Second, papers define a level of freemium content where readers can access a small number of articles each month for free but must pay for anything beyond that. Lastly, the most successful papers bundle their digital subscription together with a print subscription for free or a nominal amount.

My local paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, implemented a digital pay plan for its online content back in 2001.  Regardless of national statistics, I believe the Democrat-Gazette now believes that it’s in trouble. Giving away print papers seems like a ploy to prop up circulation numbers for advertisers.

From years of experience as a small business owner, I know that people place little value on things they receive for free. A free paper may seem nice when you first take it, but unless you already consider it valuable, it will soon become a stack of forgotten recycling materials, adding to the weight you carry out to the curb each week.

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