A few months ago I was on a train to Brussels, Belgium, leafing through the International Herald Tribune and a story caught my eye. It was a story about a newspaper that refused to have a website…they only had a print edition.
I have heard this line too many times: “If we put our stories up on the Internet, who would buy the paper on Wednesday?” the publisher, Claude Angeli, asked. “We believe in print.”
What made it different this time was that it was a publisher of a newspaper in Paris, France saying it.
The newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé, is a satirical weekly that targets politicians, entertainers and the elite with great success. In a climate where France’s other papers are beginning to struggle, Angeli is succeeding. His readership is up. His subscriptions are up. Profits are up.
“Well if he can do it, why can’t everyone else? Let’s just stop with this website experiment we’ve been doing and go back to print?” Is that what you were thinking?
Before you buy into Claude’s thinking, there are some important questions to answer:
- What’s the future of print?
- How will you distribute it?
- Will your competitors fill the online void?
- How unique is your content?
- Does your community REALLY want print?
The Future of Print
When you look at all the newspapers that are, at best, just getting thinner, it raises the question about supply and demand of newsprint and other print supplies in the future. Taking just the Detroit Free Press, which has recently become a weekly paper, as an example, how much newsprint is no longer needed to stay in business? Using numbers from last year, the paper had a weekday circulation of just under 300,000 copies and Sunday was as high as 580,000. Even though they are still printing and distributing to newsstands, the elimination of print editions to households six days of the week is a substantial decrease in the amount of newsprint being used in Detroit.
As this trend continues among large dailies, how is this going to impact the cost of print supplies and the availability of suppliers in rural areas?
Some questions you should be prepared to answer today are: “How much of an increase in printing cost can I sustain under my current pricing structure?” and “What would I do if my printer closed his doors?”
I’m not trying to scare anyone. Okay, I am. I talk with so many publishers of papers who are convinced newspapers will survive in printed form forever. I don’t see it that way. The trends are showing otherwise.
Can you rely on the post office for distribution?
The United States Postal Service has been in the news a lot lately. It’s already begun closing branches and has 3600 more in its sights. The numbers in various articles jump around, but no matter what you read, it’s not an optimistic future for small papers that rely on the local post office to distribute the paper each week.
I’m not a postal expert, but I would guess having to work with a post office in a different town would have some impact on price. If not, at the very least that paper would have the added expense and time of delivering it further.
Last week there was an article in USA Today about the USPS anticipating an $8.38 billion loss this year. How are these loses going to impact the price per piece for newspaper distribution?
Back to an earlier question: “How much on an increase on postage rates and delivery can I sustain with my current pricing structure?”
Who will fill the online void?
This may be my biggest concern for publishers who only want to do print editions. What impact will it have on your paper when the local Chamber of Commerce starts putting up feature stories of local businesses and events on a website they name anytowntoday.com, or whatever fits. What will happen when the school booster club starts a website with hundreds of color pictures of all the school activities, including sports, and you only have a couple of black and whites on the sports page each week.
I would like to say that I’m spit-balling here, but it’s happening.
And what about the various “suck” sites in your community already, like topix or americantowns.com. And then there’s Patch.com, which AOL started to compete with papers with an online edition right in their communities.
Is your content unique enough?
So how does the future fare for Claude in Paris? Provided he can get the paper printed and distributed in a cost-effective manner, he might continue to do well. He is the only one in his country with the staff and connections to deliver the type of investigative, satirical content his readers crave. It would be very difficult for someone to start an online version of his paper with the same content. As long as he remains unique in that niche with his print product he may do fine.
Provided his readers continue to want print…
Does your community really want print?
Statistics are starting to show otherwise. Publishers are often so protective of their paid circulation and the risk of losing it to online, they don’t take a hard look at just who the paid subscribers are. An attendee at one of my seminars recently told me the average age of his subscribers was 65. That’s 65. A sixty and a five. If you look at the consuming public that the advertisers are trying to reach, they’re not in the demographic. So this paper is protecting 2000 paid seniors at the risk of a larger public that is younger, web savvy, mobile device savvy and has money to spend on what your advertisers are selling: tires, cars, furniture, groceries, etc.
I suggest newspapers take a hard look at the community as a whole, as well as the subscribers, and really find out what they want and what they are willing to pay for. And as fast as the trends are changing, this is a question that needs to be asked often. What they wanted yesterday isn’t what they may want today.
I’ve speculated that we won’t be printing newspapers in seven years. It’s an educated guess, but I’ll put it in writing and hope I’m wrong.
Seven years, think about that…that’s like the day after tomorrow in dog years (or something like that).
To make this prediction I’m looking back seven years at how things have changed. To name a few milestones and how they have changed the way we communicate.
- Facebook launched in 2004
- iPhone released June 2007
- Twitter launched March 2007
- iPad released 2010
So now what?
Be prepared. Put together a five year plan and take a hard, honest look at what’s happening in the media today and don’t hide behind a hope.
I’m a print guy. My background is print. I want to be wrong. I’ve made a living teaching people how to produce a better newspaper faster…in print. I still do. But I also spend a lot of time these days helping newspapers and magazines embrace electronic media and enjoy the many benefits. For now, there is room for both.
In this plan focus on two things:
- Improving the Print product
- Developing an electronic edition
We must work now to make our print editions the best they can be. It’s important we show our community we are the news providers they can rely on, not the Chamber of Commerce or PTA. We can do this through better design, better photos, better ads and better writing. All of these add up to the ONLY product like it in most communities…and we need to take advantage of that.
At the same time, we need to develop a plan to offer online editions to our readers. This allows us to get new readers who don’t read print, offer more photos and other content in color and enjoy an additional revenue stream as we sell ads on the website.
For those who might accuse me of preaching doom and gloom I’ll conclude with “I would buy a paper today.” I still believe in community journalism. I still believe there is a future for small newspapers. I just don’t have a lot of faith, long term, in the United States Postal Service or the printing industry as it is today.