Some thoughts from the E.R.

There’s been a lot of news about newspapers recently, and a lot of it hasn’t been good. 

The first item from futurist Ross Dawson predicts newspapers will cease to exist by the year 2022. (UPDATE 9/9/10:  NY Times publisher Sulzberger says NYT’s print edition will be gone soon. Maybe by 2015) He believes newspapers will be replaced by iPad-like devices that will sell for less than $10. If this is true, this supports my earlier arguments that newspapers should adopt the cellphone industry model…practically give away the hardware, then change for services that can be provided to the device. In reality, we are starting to see this develop with the iPad, as companies begin to toy with the idea of selling interactive experiences, instead of adapting their website to the specific platform. Again, it’s not the content that is being sold, but a package that provides content to the user in a unique experience that he is willing to pay for.  (UPDATE 9/9/10: Here are three examples of  great iPad news readers … none of them from a traditional news organization.)

Are newspapers going the way of the telegraph and papyrus? This week’s good news/bad news report on ad revenues doesn’t help the case. Second quarter revenues are down 5.6 percent   to $6.44 bilion. Compared to last year’s 29 percent loss,  the numbers don’t appear to be painful.  But, print revenue is at the same levels as 1983, so it’s not cause to celebrate yet. The Titanic is still sinking, but not as fast as before. 

Will things get better? Well, yes, but according to this expert, it probably won’t occur until 2014 … and that’s only because newspaper companies are expected to find more digital alternatives that will eventually draw advertisers in order to seek new, younger audiences. Advertisers at that time are expected to come back to print to reach its older demographics. But by that time, will there be a sufficient audience for print? And, given how much newspapers have lost over the past four years, will there be anything left for them to sell in two years? 

And I doubt we’ll find much sympathy among readers. A recent Gallup poll notes that only 25 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers (although newspapers fared better than television, which had a 22 percent confidence rating).  That’s not a very good feeling for those in the business who believe they are providing a fair and balanced report to readers, and sharpens up another stake to eventually be driven into the coffin. 

But I’m not a big believer in polls, and tend to think that people look at news media the same way they look at Congress (which, coincidentally, scored at the bottom of the confidence poll). That is, people are generally dissatisfied with the media or Congress in a general sense, but tend to be satisfied with the local incumbent.  They’ll look at the global coverage with a skeptic’s eye, but will accept the local Little League scores as they are. It’s that belief that has me sure there is a future for hyperlocal news products, and it’s a key reason why local newspapers need to focus money and resources on developing their hyperlocal brand before someone else beats them to it. 

Newspapers will eventually go the way of Western Union and the pony express primarily because it will not be able to meet the growing demands of immediate news the way newer media devices have. But as I sit in the waiting room and watch the doctors work on the patient, I can’t help but shed a tear for the long, wonderful life it had.


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