Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are Print Newspapers Breathing Their Last? (Technology-driven Evolutionary Change and the Future of American Newspapers, Part I)

I have always enjoyed reading the newspaper in its traditional mode of delivery: printed on newsprint. Some of this comes from my innate curiosity about the world around me. Most of it, however, stems from the years that my late father worked as a combination photographer and journalist for several print newspapers.

Now it is beginning to look like the traditional print newspaper is moving toward extinction in the United States. Here in Idaho’s Magic Valley (a seven county, broad valley just north of Nevada) in the past year five County seats last their weekly newspaper and another lost its six day a week paper when they were merged into the region’s largest daily paper. Reason? Corporate cost cutting. Thus six communities lost a central part of their identity.

Nationally, already the owners of three of the nation’s largest daily papers – the Philadelphia Enquirer, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times have filed for bankruptcy protection. Off and on for months I have seen rumors floating around cyberspace that the New York Times is considering either sharply reducing the size of its print editions, or eliminating them completely.

Earlier this year the owner of the Denver Rocky Mountain News shut it down completely. Since the 19th Century, Denver residents had been kept informed of events by two competing newspapers. Now, only the Denver Post remains.

This week brings word that the Seattle Post-Intelligencier has dropped its print editions while keeping its Internet edition active. At the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle reportedly will be shut down within a month if a buyer cannot be found (it sounds like no rescuer is on the horizon.) This week brings still other news that I see as sad.

In 1881, the legendary, yet very real, shootout at the OK Corral occurred in the small frontier Arizona town called Tombstone. A newspaper from nearby Tucson, the Arizona Citizen reported on the event in beautiful prose. As all of southeast Arizona grew into the modern era, and as Tucson grew into a major metropolitan area, the paper grew with it even as it chronicled the growth. In 1976 the paper was sold to the Gannett Corporation, which renamed it the Tucson Citizen.

As has happened in other cities where Gannett owns local papers, over time, the paper’s quality declined, driving subscribers away. With any newspaper (or any other periodical, for that matter) when the number of subscribers falls, the rates the paper can charge advertisers decline as well. This downward spiral hit Tucson’s first newspaper as well. So, this Saturday, March 21, after surviving for 139 years, the paper will publish its final, farewell edition.

In Idaho’s Capitol city of Boise, the state’s largest newspaper, the Idaho Daily Statesman is also struggling with remaining profitable. On top of shrinking the physical page size of the print edition and outsourcing the printing of its editions to a newspaper in a nearby city, thereby eliminating 40 plus production jobs, today its website announced still more changes. On April 3, 25 additional employees will be laid off, cutting its total workforce by another 10%. For all remaining employees, pay cuts of 3% to 10% (determined by broad wage bracket) will go into effect.

This upheaval in the newspaper industry leads to one main question: what’s going on?

I see these changes as the first stirrings of a major evolutionary change in the overall news industry. In the past, newspapers survived the development of local radio news that offered the advantage of being able to cover important news events as they happened. Later they survived the development of television news that could both report on “breaking” news and show viewers what was happening.

Now, the Internet is emerging as an increasingly important news dissemination medium. With the Internet, it is possible for people worldwide (who are paying attention) to learn of major news events potentially within seconds of when they happen. Plus, the Internet offers the added advantage of being able to hyperlink related content together as it develops. I see this ease of rapid updating and ease of tying together related information as combining with the increasing availability of free WiFi zones to present traditional newspapers with a challenge they are structurally incapable of responding to.

In time – conceivably as little as ten years, certainly by the mid 21st Century – I see traditional print newspapers largely to completely fading into history, replaced by on-line papers and non-traditional news web sites. Many older adults will struggle with accepting this inevitable change, however, from an environmental perspective, this is a very positive change. How?

As the number of print newspapers drops, the demand for newsprint proportionally declines. Manufacturers, in response, reduce the amount they produce to keep their finished goods inventory value under control. As they reduce production, they reduce their emission of a variety of air and water pollutants, thus helping clean up the environment. Reduced production also reduces carbon oxide emissions into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the reduction in the human impact on global warming. In addition, reducing paper production allows the trees being grown by the paper companies to remain planted in the ground possibly years longer, thereby increasing the volume of carbon dioxide the planet’s biosphere can absorb throughout the growing season.

A similar chain of reasoning is easily developed regarding the printing inks that are used to produce newspapers. Again, reducing the demand for web-offset printing inks reduces pollution and the industry’s carbon footprint, thereby benefitting the environment.

In Part II of this post, I will reflect on the technology advancement-driven changes I have witnessed with my own eyes.

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