Why newspapers won't survive

Warning: The following post is not advisable for those with weak stomachs. Actually, the bad news comes from the American Journalism Review's Charles Layton, who paints a harrowing future for dailies trying to make the transition from print to online. Conventional wisdom has had Web advertising eventually becoming a paper’s dominant revenue driver. But the folks Layton spoke to don't see that happening. The real pessimists - or perhaps realists - expect lots of newspapers to disappear. And that includes some of the biggest ones. "It's going to be really bloody, incredibly devastating," predicts Mark Potts, a journalist-turned consultant. Here's the basic problem: Most newspaper Web sites are struggling. Advertising revenues have slowed substantially because readership has leveled off or even fallen.

If newspapers' future is on the Internet, and many newspapers are losing rather than gaining Internet traffic, what does that mean? Mark Potts believes that the daily paper — whether in print or online — is simply losing its relevancy. "If a big newspaper in a metropolitan area dropped dead right now," he says, "nobody under 30 would care." And this guy is a friend of newspapers.

He’s right, of course. If you have any doubts, check out an airport gate area to see the number of people reading the local paper. Miles Groves, a former economist with the Newspaper Association of America, believes that dailies have lost their chance to turn things around.

Groves can still see a future for small local newspapers — those with circulation under 25,000. And he thinks a few large ones with special advantages — the Post, the New York Times and some others — will make the transition to a digital news product, with print as a supplemental business. "But a lot of other major metros won't do that," he says. "Papers like the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News — some of them will make the transition to the digital world. Some of them will not."

Conrad Fink, who teaches newspaper management at the University of Georgia, told Layton that the SF Chronicle could be one of the first major metro dailies to shut down. He also thinks Tribune Co. is "in jeopardy," although he found it hard to believe that the Chicago Tribune would ever disappear. (The same could be said for the LAT.)

Fink reels off a list of reasons why online advertising isn't paying off as it should for newspapers. To start with, many visitors to a newspaper's Web site are useless to local advertisers, because they don't live in the area. Fink cites the example of his own town, Athens, Georgia. The local paper, the Banner-Herald, draws a large number of online visitors, "but the publisher figures only 25 percent of those hits come from the Athens geographic market. Which is to say, 75 percent of the visitors to that Web site are of no relevance to local retailers. A national newspaper like the New York Times can sell those eyeballs to advertisers. Regional newspapers cannot."


Perhaps most of all, Fink laments the failure of newspapers to target specific customers — to say to the retailer, we'll deliver your ad to people who play tennis. "That kind of focusing isn't very strong in newspaper advertising," he says. Fink can't understand why papers haven't copied some of Amazon.com's methods. "You call up a book on Amazon and you get names of books by the same author, and a list of other books you'd probably like if you like this one. Newspapers are nowhere near having that degree of sophistication on their Web sites."

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
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