Why Print Newspapers Are Not Hitting Rock Bottom

Is print newspaper bottoming out? Not likely. A report last October from consulting firm McKinsey painted a relatively positive picture for the print publishing industry, claiming that “many of the people likely to abandon print newspapers and print consumer magazines have already done so … most of [the] core audience – households that have retained their print subscriptions despite having access to broadband – will continue to do so for now, effectively putting a floor on the print markets.” But one look at the numbers and the forecast for the market shows that this theory is perhaps premature.

RELATED: How Publishers Can Analyze Their Audience to Gain New Revenue

What Do the Numbers Say?

The theory that old media has found its bottom simply doesn’t play out in the statistics. This chart shows the September 2015 numbers in black and white, and it’s clear that they’ve declined significantly in only two years. At the top are the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which are the only newspapers that sell over half a million copies per average weekday. The Chicago Sun-Times averages just 118,000 per weekday. All of these numbers are much lower than people in the industry generally think them to be. If the numbers are that low and are clearly declining, what basis is there for the theory that print has found its floor for subscribers?

Loyal Readers are Aging

In addition to subscribers who simply choose to end their print subscriptions, loyal readers are also aging. The median age of print subscribers is around 60 years or older. The average life expectancy for the U.S. is 78.8 years. If the majority of readers are in their senior years and newspapers aren’t adding younger subscribers, there is a definite shelf life for subscriber numbers. That means the bottom for print readership is still to come, and the current model could be unsustainable.

Advertisers Disagree with McKinsey

Advertisers go where the people are.

The McKinsey report predicts that digital spending will account for more than 50 percent of overall media spend. The industry is rapidly shifting to digital, and ad sales are going with it. Ad revenues for print media have been falling for ten straight years with no end in sight. Bad news for print publishers, because this is where most of their revenue comes from. This shift to digital buys is largely because advertisers know that they’re going to reach a wider audience online.

Even McKinsey is Hedging

Note that even in its good news scenario, McKinsey makes sure to say the core audience will maintain their print subscriptions “for now.” This is because, as the report points out, the industry is rapidly changing and growing. No one knows what the next big thing will be, but it’s a pretty good bet that it isn’t print.

Developing Nations: The Future of Print?

One point in the report that is perhaps more convincing than the bottoming out theory is the anticipated growth of print newspaper publishing in developing nations. The report suggests that this growth will be driven largely by advertising. So perhaps the focus of print media is just shifting like the rest of the industry.

Print Newspaper: Far from the Bottom

While there may be opportunities for growth abroad, in the U.S. print still likely has farther to fall. With the rapid shift to digital, aging subscribers, and production and distribution costs that are enormous compared to online publications, the current print model is still finding its floor. But one thing is for sure: if traditional media continues to adapt to the changing interests of the public, they’re sure to find their footing in this new digital world.

How can print newspapers adapt to the digital landscape without going digital?

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