Newspapers: A Contrary View

Over in Slate, Daniel Gross cries caution on the death of newspapers, using some of the existing data out there and comparing to other industries. Of course I think he is right….things are not as bad as they appear, and there is always a contrary point of view that should be considered. As he says:

At some point in the future, newspapers may disappear. But count me in the later rather than sooner camp. And I can’t help but think that many newspaper-doomsayers are conflating hope with analysis. According to many of the digerati, newspapers and other printed matter that people pay for through clunky old distribution systems (the mail, kids on bicycles, vans) can never make money and are bound to fail, while publications distributed online for free are destined to rule the world. (Of course, I could be guilty of the same impulse. I have feet in both worlds and could no more choose between print and the Web than I could choose between my two children.) But I also think this might be a case of making too much of a few numbers and ignoring some important ones.

First of all, there’s nothing ipso facto shocking about a decline in patronage of 10 percent in six months. Many political blogs and cable news shows have seen their audiences fall by much more than 10 percent since the feverish fall of 2008. And advertising at plenty of online publications has fallen by a similar amount. In case anybody has forgotten, we’ve had a deep, long recession, a huge spike in unemployment, and a credit crunch. Consumers have cut back sharply on all sorts of expenditures. There are plenty of members of what I call the 40 percent club: businesses, many tethered to finance and credit, that have seen sales plummet by nearly one-half. These include automobiles, homes, luxury apparel, and diamonds. Many other components of consumer discretionary spending—hotels, restaurants, air travel—have fallen off significantly. Do we draw a line from trends over the last few years and declare that in 15 years there will be only a handful of hotels? I’m not sure why we would expect consumption of a purely discretionary item that costs a few hundred dollars per year not to fall in the type of macroeconomic climate we’ve had.

One final note is that there is a human tendency to generalize from the personal. Because *I*  get all my next via a computer terminal and always connected smart devices, that is the way that *everyone* will soon get their news. I see this a ton currently among the digeratti….because I use Twitter, it will rule the world, because I use Foursquare it must be a trend, etc. I even had a reporter say that “everyone” had an iPhone. Hey, lots of people use iPhones, but lots is a far cry from everyone. There is no doubt that the business of print media is under huge stress, there is no doubt that the future of the medium is cloudy at best, but as Gross notes well, sometimes a comparison is apt:

In fact, in some regards, print-online hybrids like newspapers and magazines have outperformed online-only publications. The Web operations of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal aren’t exactly slouches when it comes to selling online ads. And as poorly as the stock of the New York Times has performed over the past decade, most people would have preferred owning it to the stock of Salon.com, or TheStreet.com.

Ah yes. Capitalism at work. 😉

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