Economist Predicts a Dim Future for Newspapers

The magazine this week adds a nail to the proverbial coffin containing your daily newspaper -- now shot, stabbed, and drowned a thousand times over.

The Economist this week adds a nail to the proverbial coffin containing your daily newspaper — now shot, stabbed, and drowned a thousand times over.

In a cover story entitled, “Who Killed the Newspaper?” the magazine goes through all the depressing indicators we have become quite familiar with: declining circulation, declining advertising revenue, declining classified ads. In short, from a business perspective, anything with ink on it is declining.

The article also takes a jab at newspaper owners, echoing the words of Rupert Murdoch, who collectively condemned these bosses (himself excluded, we guess) as “remarkably, unaccountably complacent.” The Economist explains that this has to do with the fact that for decades these owners “enjoyed near monopolies, fat profit margins, and returns on capital above those of other industries. In the past, newspaper companies saw little need to experiment or to change and spent little or nothing on research and development.”

Well, the party’s over. Everybody knows. The only hopeful part of this analysis is the magazine’s two prescriptions for how newspapers can lift themselves out of the dreary muck. One is right on target, but the other is disappointing and, we think, wrong.

The Internet is clearly a big part of the solution. As the Economist points out, on almost all the indices where print is falling, Web sites for newspapers are rising. Just one promising example is online advertising, where the value of Web-based ads grew by 70 percent overall in the first half of 2006. According to the Newspaper Association of America, advertising for all of the country’s newspaper Web sites totaled $613 million during the first three months of this year, a 35 percent increase over the same period in 2005. But to put that in perspective, the article also points out that print and online ads together grew by only 1.8 percent, to $11 billion, because print advertising was so flat.

There are of course drawbacks to relying on the Internet. For one thing, it takes a lot more readers online to make up the revenue of one lost print subscriber. Still, technology offers and will offer many ways to monetize this large Web readership as we forge on — especially if American newspapers are more daring and creative than they have been to date.

But even shifting to a strong online presence might not be enough, the Economist warns. And here the magazine’s business frame of reference ignores common sense. Pointing out that research has shown that consumers of newspapers favor “short stories and news that is relevant to them: local reporting, sports, entertainment, weather and traffic,” the article goes on to advocate abandoning long-form journalism, international news, investigative stories, or really anything that would demand the attention span of someone older than ten.

Basically, the Economist concludes, “People want their paper to tell them how to get richer, and what they might do in the evening.”

So the future of print, if it has a future at all, says the Economist, is in those free dailies handed out before you get on the subway that contain little more than 200-word blurbs and movie listings. The article lauds the business model of Metro as an example to be emulated. Not only are these free sheets pulling in large circulation numbers — as much as 16 percent of the market in European cities where they are published — but they require only about a tenth of the reportorial and editorial staff needed for a real newspaper.

The Economist doesn’t even spare a single tear for what this would actually mean if newspapers all went the way of these freebies. It’s a bit cynical, to say the least. And though the economic situation for newspapers is indeed dire, we don’t think we’ve reached the point where their fundamental function — to inform, to scrutinize, to provide checks on the powerful — needs to be sacrificed to turn a profit.

The piece closes with this sad prediction: “Over the next few years [the newspaper industry] must decide whether to compromise on its notion of ‘fine journalism’ and take a more innovative, more businesslike approach — or risk becoming a beautiful old museum piece.”

If the only way to make newspapers profitable is to turn “fine journalism” into junk, than maybe we should start thinking about whether or not news is too precious a commodity to be subjected to the same economic rules by which one sells widgets or hamburgers.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.