In the 1920s, radio was supposed to be the death of newspapers. Later, television was to do away with newspapers, and later still, the internet was declared the final nail in the newspaper’s coffin.
It’s hard not to be discouraged when the newspaper industry in the US has lost more than $40 billion in advertising revenue in the past decade. The good news for newspapers, however, is that circulation revenue grew by five percent in 2012, and revenues from sources not tied to advertising grew by eight percent. New revenue sources now account for almost 10 percent of the dollars flowing into newspaper companies. What’s in store for the industry? Here are five expert opinions on the future of traditional newspapers.
Martin Langeveld is a 30-year veteran of the newspaper business in New England, and he believes that the business model of the seven-day printed newspaper is all but over. He says, “We’ll start to see frequency reductions to two or three days a week at an accelerated pace. By the end of 2015, fewer than half of the current dailies will still be on that schedule.” He also sees paywalls evolving into membership models, where subscribers gain access to services and benefits beyond content, including access to a network of content from news organization cooperatives.
Fiona Spruill, editor of emerging platforms at The New York Times, sees mobile devices as the future of newspapers. “If media companies want to stay in step with their users in 2013 and beyond, they will no longer be able to think of the mobile experience as being downstream from, or an afterthought to, the desktop web experience.” In the next year or so, many news organizations will discover that the majority of their users are accessing content on phones and tablets rather than traditional computers. By November 2012, says Spruill, 37 percent of all visits to The New York Times, including the website, mobile site, and apps, came from mobile devices, up from 28 percent in 2011.
Warren Buffett is more bullish on the newspaper industry than many news industry veterans, because he believes strong community bonds with local papers can drive success for publishers. In a letter to the editors of the newspapers owned by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett said, “Berkshire will probably purchase more papers in the next few years. We will favor towns and cities with a strong sense of community, comparable to the 26 in which we will soon operate.” Berkshire Hathaway currently has 66 newspapers in its portfolio, 63 of which were purchased in May 2012.
Bob Ray Sanders, a professional journalist for 40 years and currently working for the Star-Telegram, tells new journalism grads not to write newspapers’ obituary just yet. He has faith in young journalists, saying, “These young men and women are trained to deliver news on a variety of platforms. They’re able to report, write, photograph and use technology in ways that dazzle old fogies like me.” While acknowledging that newspapers are now “digital first” enterprises, he knows that the world will always need the services journalists provide. “While we still need watchdogs, we do not need pack dogs, lap dogs, dirty dogs or mad dogs; we’ve got enough of those.”
Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review, thinks that current paywalls are only there to buy time “primarily because they aren’t providing readers with content worth paying for.” She sees publications moving away from the “issue” model and toward selling content across multiple channels that may or may not form the equivalent to an “edition.” Friedman also expects more publications to unbundle print and digital, charging the same for each as The Economist has done. “It will become a given for readers that you pay the same for a subscription regardless of format, because you’re paying to get valuable content in the medium you prefer.”
So what’s in store for the future of traditional newspapers? The general consensus is that the internet won’t kill newspapers, but will change the way they operate with fewer printed editions and membership model subscriptions emerging in place of paywalls.
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