A glimmer of hope about the future of newspapers

Knock on wood. We may be at the bottom of the worst economic recession this generation has seen. And Gordon Borrell is predicting we'll see a rebound in newspaper revenues in 2010.

Happy days will not be here again, but perhaps we can at least stop the Imminent Death of Journalism funeral march.

About a year before the economy collapsed, I was at a private meeting in Atlanta organized by the Newspaper Association of America. A bunch of online folks had been brought together to talk with Jim Chisholm of iMedia, who was working on some forecasting models. We were all brutally negative in our assessments. We could smell smoke long before there was a fire. I'm not particularly happy that we were right. But as one of the NAA folks said that day, newspapers tend to be leading indicators of recession, and trailing indicators of recovery. Our ad revenues are a barometer of how local business operators feel.

This is cyclical recovery. We all tend to confuse the cyclical and the secular. Newspaper revenues are subject to economic cycles. They ebb and they flow. But there is a second force, the longterm decline of the primacy of mass-circulation print, that is undeniable. The result is that you get kind of a sawtooth graph, pointing down. You might fool yourself that it's actually pointing up by failing to consider how much faster the broader market is growing, but the fact is that newspapers have been declining in market share for many decades.

As we begin to crawl out of the hole created by the Bush administration's disastrous policies, we need to guard against slipping back into the bad behavior of the past. This economy has done us a brutal favor by waking us up. Let's not waste it.

Newspaper companies have sinned against their own interests by borrowing like mad to buy more of the past when they should have been investing in the future. Corporate takeovers, luxury offices and new printing plants belong to the 20th century. The future for local media is in new digital products focused on the needs of local businesses. Do we have the will to pursue that future? I think we do, but knock on wood.