I really hate being in a position of defending the newspaper industry. It's much more fun, and in the big picture perhaps more productive, to kick it in the pants. But I have to call bullshit on the "Newspapers Are Dead" meme.
No, they're not. Neither is print. Schadenfreude and gravedancing do not advance a rational conversation about how journalism will work going forward, and irrational negativity will not help us invent the future.
Let's get some perspective. In spite of the worst economy since Roosevelt, many U.S. newspapers are still turning profits in the 15-20 percent range, and the U.S. newspaper industry is still turning around 50 billion dollars of gross revenue every year.
Several major newspaper companies are in big financial trouble because they borrowed heavily to finance acquisitions on an assumption that even greater profit margins (over 40 percent in many cases) were going to continue. But do not confuse a poor corporate finance decision with fundamental sustainability of the business.
I've been working exclusively on the online side of the news business since 1994, after many years in print, and I'm as much an online advocate as anybody. I've seen cycles of boom and bust and I know how to recognize crazy talk, and there's a lot of it going around right now.
I can't remember where, but I was reading a blog post the other day written by someone who had visited a local newspaper and was stunned -- stunned -- to discover that there's a lot of money in the local journalism business.
Yes, there is. A lot.
And if you want to understand why newspaper managers aren't impressed by ill-informed arguments that we ought to just quit printing and/or outsource all our ad sales to Google, that's why.
Look, there's no question that a fundamental restructuring is taking place in a number of dimensions.
Part of that involves a consumer preference shift from print to digital. Part of that involves an explosion of sources and choices that knocks the local newspaper out of the nonlocal information business. Part of it involves product disintegration -- especially classifieds from news, but also news itself being ripped apart.
Those changes will present huge challenges and demand painful choices going forward, and both the print and digital product lines of local newspapers will have to adapt, along with all of the people who produce those products.
But that doesn't roll up to a "newspapers are dead" conclusion. There is tremendous demand for local media, both from the people we usually and falsely call "consumers," and the businesses that we often call "advertisers." The solutions that work to meet that demand will change. Some companies will fail to change and will die, and others will step in. We can be sure that the future won't be like the past, but that doesn't mean there is no future.
A lot of media punditry comes from people who have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. An exception is Alan Mutter, and I recommend these recent posts to inject some fact into the friction:
Why newspapers can't stop the presses
Print drives online ad sales at newspapers
When you read them, keep in mind that there is a lot of variation in actual performance among the more than 1,400 daily papers in the United States.
Transforming doesn't require jettisoning everything from print.
The negativity is completely rational
Also interesting to consider...
Smaller papers still healthy
What about the readers?
Markets, not readers
Markets? Yes, we need to do more.
The Elephant in the Room
News isn't dead but newspapers are
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