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It's Time to Declare the Death of the Death of Newspapers

Despite Forecasts of its Demise, Print Journalism Clings Stubbornly to Life


It's Time to Declare the Death of the Death of Newspapers
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The line, from a column in USA Today, made my day:

"There's a sense that many obituaries for print were premature."

It comes from a piece by Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review, who was covering the American Society of News Editors convention. A forum Rieder attended told a tale of two newspapers, one that cut back on print (the New Orleans Times-Picayune) and another that essentially doubled down on it (the Orange County Register).

As you may recall, the Times-Picayune last year decided to print just three days a week. The idea was that such a "digital-first" strategy would put the paper at the forefront of the brave new online world (and make good business sense).

Instead what happened was this: Residents of the Big Easy were outraged. The company that owns the paper, Advance Publications, was roundly condemned. And a competitor paper moved in to fill the void.

So the Times-Picayune, shifting into full reverse, this week launched a three-day-a-week tabloid to supplement the broadsheet paper published the rest of the week.

Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune, admitted that "New Orleanians reacted with considerable anger" to the cutbacks in print, adding: "Maybe we should have listened sooner than we did."

Uh, yeah.

On the other hand, under a new publisher the Orange Country Register has, as Rieder notes, hired 175 journalists, and added 768 pages of content a month including new sections, pages and features. The Washington bureau was reopened, investigative reporting was beefed up, and coverage of local news and high school sports was increased.

In short, the paper appears to be thriving, and editor Ken Brusic says the Register has no plans to reduce its print schedule. "Newspaper reading is a habit," he tells Rieder. "It needs to be a seven-day habit."

For years, the digital zealots have been telling us that newspapers were dead in the water, a relic of the past destined to go the way of the dinosaurs and eight-track tapes.

But, in what must be a big disappointment for the digi-geeks, newspapers have stubbornly clung to life. Sure, some have closed, but the U.S. is still home to roughly 1,300 of them. And while these are tough times for the newspaper business, barring some wildly unforeseen calamity (say, an asteroid hitting the earth), it's difficult to imagine all of them suddenly disappearing tomorrow. Or next year. Or even five years from now.

And papers haven't survived simply because of a certain nostalgia some of us have for ink on newsprint. They're around because they still make money. Indeed, they still get much more revenue from printed ads than they do from digital ones. (As I've written before, digital advertising has proven to be a major disappointment. One study found that for every $7 papers lost in print ad revenue, they gained a paltry $1 in digital.)

If you don't believe me, believe Warren Buffett, a guy who seems to know a thing or two about making money. His Berkshire Hathaway investing firm has bought 28 papers in the past two years, and Buffett has said he expects profit margins of about 10 percent. That's a big drop from the halcyon days of newspapering, but pretty good compared to profit margins in many other industries.

Now, am I going to be foolish enough to predict that newspapers will still be around 20 or 30 years from now? Of course not. I'm a writer, not a prophet. Who knows what the world will look like decades hence?

The point is, papers are here now, and for the foreseeable future. And though less profitable than they once were, they've been helped by recent increases in revenue from circulation and paywalls, which many of the digital zealots had said wouldn't work.

So it seems clear that news outlets, for the time being, must peddle their content across multiple platforms - online, mobile and print.

And while iPads and smartphones are great, for many people (myself included), when you get tired of sitting at a computer or squinting at a tiny screen all week, there's nothing like curling up in bed on a Sunday morning with bagels, coffee and the paper.

So let's once and for all declare the death of the death of newspapers, shall we?

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