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The Future of Newspapers: Two perspectives

Notes by Bill Densmore on a presentation Feb. 23, 2009 at the Fred Smith Forum of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, Mo. organized by the Missouri Press Association. Presenters are Doug Crews and Vicki Russell.

Doug Crews, Missouri Press Association executive director, opens by reading an op-ed piece from a small Missouri newspaper about the financial challenge faced by U.S. newspapers -- written in June of 1980. "We didn't have the Internet in June of 1980 . . . but we've sort of been going through highs and lows in the newspaper industry," said Crews. beijing massage beijing massage beijing massage 北京マッサージ beijing massage 北京マッサージ 北京マッサージ

He introduces Vicki Russell, associate publisher of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune,. "If we keep reporting that newspapers are dying, then that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is no reason for that to happen," she says, "We've got to keep some of the news about these things in perspective."

She says many newspapers are doing just fine. So what are the distinctions between those doing well and those not doing well. They include, she says:

  • Market size
  • Corporate debt
  • Economy
  • Internet
  • Readership

"I will expect more newspapers to be filing for bankruptcy before we work our way through this economic crisis," she says. But one positive outcome may be the potential for more and more local ownership [Russell's paper is family owned]. "I will make a prediction that there will be newspapers started up to replace some of the ones that are going out of business."

She says there are predictions that half of the nation's radio stations will be out of business by the end of the year. So she sees the problem as not limited to newspapers.

She says the smaller the market, the better the position of the newspaper which serves it relative to what is going on among major metro dailies. She provides demographic data about The Tribune's readership, which she says is growing -- some 5,000 more adults read the paper today than a year ago, the research shows. About 64 percent of Boone County adults (about 74,500 out of 117,00) read The Tribune in a given week.

Can the web replace the print product?

Russell isn't ready to "buy into" the notion that the web can "entirely replace the print product."

She says the conventional wisdom now is that young people don't read -- or shouldn't read -- newspaper, and a pervasive message that "newspapers are dead" is filtering down to the public and is heard on the street even by publishers of healthy weeklies.

"What most newspapers are facing now has nothing to do with the internet, it is the softening ad budgets by companies across the country who are just trying to save money," she says.

She says that undermines democracy. The Missouri Press Association, she said, is "fighting back" by developing messages about the importance of the role of newspapers. She references the NewspaperProject.org project.

She says there is an emerging discussion about whether news organizations should charge for content. "I think that is going to become a robust discussion sooner rather than later," she says.

If newspapers die, it will be difficult for the remaining news organization to survive on web revenues only. About 85 percent of the news in the U.S. is generated by newspapers.

Some recommendations for publishers

Russell offered these suggestions to publishers, which she attributes to a study by iMedia commissioned by the Newspaper Association of America:

  • Focus more investments on marketing servies businesses, such a stelesales, point of purchase, biz to biz, custom publishing and branded entertainment.
  • Increase circulation pricing particularly for home delivery. That's a strategy and if the result is declining circulation, that should not be viewed as a negative.
  • Focus on advertiser retention and acquisition. Retain sales resources, attract advertisers of all types and sizes, create ad products across platforms.
  • Advance necessary savings by one year. Eliminate less-valued content, outsource, integrate workflows and fulfill readers desires.

Community publishing survey

Doug Crews now presents a series of screen slides showing positive data about the value of newspapers to communities. The research was commissioned by the National Newspaper Association, which is based at the Missouri School of Journalism.

"I guess that is one of the things I am most concerned about, if newspapers were to go away, who is going to be teh watchdog on government?" said Crews. "Who is going to watch our tax money . . . We need to play that role."

Brian Steffens, director of the National Newspaper Association, says surveys show in smaller communities the average time people spend reading their newspaper is gradually increasing. However, Russell said the most common two reasons people give for dropping their newspaper subscription is that they don't have enough time or it costs too much.

Questions and answers

Russell talks about the challenge of some media sources treating their audience in a unsophisticated way.

"I know people my age who can talk all day long about the woman who had eight babies because they've been online and looked at those stories and are riveted by them, but they don't know that the school board has just proposed a tax increase."

Charging for content?

Former Chicago Sun Times Editor Stuart Loory, now a professor at Mizzou, asks: What can be done about the news business about charging for use of the websites?

Russell replies: "The most valuable thing we have right now is content and right now we give it away on our websites . . . and everyone sucks it off . . . the discussion I am beginning to hear from publishers is charging for enough of the content to protect the print product or at least get adequate compensation for the information delivered online." "I wish I had a magic wand to say there is a precise way to do this - it is all new territory."

She thinks papers will have information in front of the curtain and information behind the curtain -- by subscription or by click. You need to have enough in front of the curtain to be able to continue to sell ads against that, she says.

"It's slowly evolving for that," says Crews. "But we can't allow the revenues to get away from us as they have." He says some newspaper websites are bundling web access with a print subscription.

Q: How do you charge for content without having a huge revenue problem?

Crews answers: "I think that goes to the crucial issue." He thinks the local newspaper has to be the central information source.

"A lot of newspaper content is original and so if we are putting original content on your site that you can only access than you pay for it then it is not out there being passed around as freely as our information is now," says Russell.

"I don't want a political operative telling me what is going on," says Crews.

Q: What is the online effectiveness of ads vs. print, and how to people prefer to receive ads?

CREWS: Present day print advertising is much more effective than web, according to current surveys.

RUSSELL: [In print], people value advertising as highly as news content, other surveys show.