Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

Time magazine has a piece proclaiming the continued existence of newspapers, which is a nice observation (yes, they are still extraordinarily profitable relative to other types of business).

But in in a sidebar, Bob Mong, editor of the Dallas Morning News, is quoted:

"I'm 57. When I was 21, about 70% of people my age read a newspaper regularly. For people my age now, it's still about the same percentage."

No, that's not true. Not true at all.

When Bob Mong was 21, 70 percent read the paper yesterday.

Today, you have to murder the definition of regularly to get anywhere near that figure.

Here are the actual figures for the Dallas Morning News, from its
spring 2006 ABC Reader Profile. All editors -- and all new media people -- should be familiar with the ABC reports, which are freely available on the Web.

The ABC reader survey for the Dallas Morning News says only 50 percent of the Dallas-area adults in Mong's age bracket (55-64) get the DMN daily, and only 60% get it Sunday (the area "RSPA2" in the report).

Here's where that 70 percent number comes from: four-week cumulative "readership." In the ABC phone survey, 65 percent of Mong's age bracket self-reported having read the daily paper at least once in four weeks; 72 percent affirmed for the Sunday paper.

Once in four weeks? That's not regular, any more than advertiser-sponsored bulk circulation or USA Today's hotel deliveries are "paid" circulation. Let's not go fooling ourselves.

People in these so-called "loyal, core reader" age brackets are not the fossils they're made out to be. They have computers and wifi routers and computers -- often better equipment than their younger counterparts.

A study published last week showed that "nearly half (46%) of Apple's U.S. user base is 55 or older. " (Maybe they should quite making Macintoshes and start selling Granny Smiths.)

Pew says 71 percent of people aged 50-64 are using the Internet.

Like their younger counterparts, these "loyal, core readers" are using the Web as an interactive medium -- emailing, posting photos, occasionally blogging and joining in special-interest online communities.

They're not listening to Guy Lombardo and relaxing with the daily newspaper. It's later than you think.


Great headline ...

Three years ago, I started talking to the Star's circulation director about -- what happens if things fall apart overnight -- the tipping point -- in 30 days, we lose 20 percent of our subscribers? Apocalyptic, but not out of the question.

My point -- I'm an early adapter. At 45 (then 42), I'm pretty much a digital native (I think). I've had broadband for a few years, and online rules my life. What happens when more of my cohorts/age group turn on to the Web. Our more aged readers, we probably won't lose until they die -- but 40 to 60, our sweet spot of subscribers, they can and are likely to switch. What happens when they start switching en masse, waking up early one morning going, "You know, I don't really read the paper anymore. Why do I need it?" One of those little cultural awakenings that happens some times -- a lot of people coming to the same realization at the same time.

What happens then?

And now consider that stat that came out a week or so ago: 18 percent of broadband households have canceled newspaper subscriptions.

Ummm ....

I think you're too tough on Mong.

What do you think all those people are reading on the Web?

Tens of thousands are reading the local paper.

Counting those readers, I bet Mong's 70 percent figure is right on the money.

People might not read the dead-tree version, but they're reading more newspapers than ever from around the world.

Buck, what makes you think so? Bogus numbers from Scarborough about 30-day reach? That's not what I call a real engaged audience when you're only getting them once in 30 days. Truth is, because of poor data models, we don't really know the size of the engaged online audience -- smart site managers know how to figure it, but it's a far cry from the 30-day number.

I think we have to be on guard against swallowing our own snake oil. The claim that the Web extends our reach is valid on the surface, but that's reach, not grasp. Unique user numbers may look good but they're not, as Howard points out, engaged in any sense comparable to the audience the newspaper industry had in 1970. Newspaper readership data over the last 36 years shows a linear decline and the Internet has not magically cured that.

But I'm also not in the camp of blaming newspaper editors (including Bob Mong) for that decline. It's largely driven by forces beyond our control: cable TV, the Interstate highway system, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, etc. I'm serious. The explosion of media choices for information and personal entertainment diverts time and attention; increased geographic mobility cuts roots civic connections; the transformation of America into Generica undermines localism. Editors may have responded poorly to the storm, but they didn't make it rain.

Like you I'm a digital native 40-something. I have stopped reading paper dailies, using the 'net to read them. The only papers I buy are weekly summaries (Economist etc) and a few topic specific monthlies. This is where the useful investigative reporting seems to be now.

I don't know if my behaviour will go mainstream, but I suspect I will be a significant minority.

The tipping point could come from several directions, and lots of people over a short period deciding not to bother with the printed edition any more is just one.

Consider: At some point, a major advertiser (Dillard's, or the local grocery chain) could decide that while it made sense to advertise in a paper with 52% market penetration, it doesn't make sense at 51%. Or, someone new in the Dillard's, etc., marketing department could decide it doesn't make sense to advertise in a paper with 52% penetration. That would be bad enough -- but it's likely other major advertisers would follow.

Another possibility: There's very little incremental cost in terms of time for a carrier to deliver one more paper on a given block. The reverse is also true; it takes nearly as much time to deliver 10 or 20 papers on a block as to deliver one. It's not hard to imagine the whole distribution network breaking down because subscribers are so widely dispersed that carriers can't make a profit -- especially with high gas prices.

In short, the possibilites are grim; especially for newspapers that are still testing the waters of the Internet. Should these or other possibilities come to pass, such companies simply may not have time to adapt.