Newspaper industry faces evolution, not extinction

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

American writer and humorist Mark Twain once complained newspaper reports of his death were exaggerated. At the time, they were. More than a century later, the question isn’t so much whether or not Twain is dead. Spoiler alert: he is. The question these days is whether or not newspapers could die, too.

From some vantage points, the outlook isn’t promising. Newspaper circulation has dropped. So has advertising revenue and especially newsroom staffing.

Still, annual revenue from newspaper circulation and advertising in the United States totals nearly $30 billion. That’s billion with a B, which rhymes with C and that stands for cash. While most newspapers offer print and online editions, the good, old-fashion display advertisements printed on paper continue to account for the bulk of revenue.

Moreover, I’d argue newspapers play an indispensable role and what the world needs now, perhaps more than ever, is good journalism. I agree less with Donald Trump and more with Thomas Jefferson in their presidential assessments of the newspaper industry. Jefferson said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later.”

I’m further encouraged by a recent conversation with students in a mass communications course at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. I went to class ostensibly to lecture about newspapers as a medium, but learned more from students than I suspect they learned from me — especially about the habits and preferences of a generation born in the digital age. What they had to say portends continued evolution in the newspaper industry, to be sure, but not extinction.

Having worked for newspapers for more than 40 years, I’ve experienced firsthand the incredible changes in the industry, most of them brought about by advancing technology. When I started my career, I composed stories on typewriters and edited copy with a pencil. Newspaper pages were assembled by cutting copy and headlines from paper with sharp knives and sticking everything together with hot wax. In retrospect, it seems like I was in a “Flintstones” episode — although that reference is probably just as anachronistic. Technology has made it possible to not only write and edit copy on a computer, but also design and assemble pages complete with photographs and advertisements and then electronically transmit the completed edition to the printer.

Like everything else on the planet, the Internet has brought equally profound changes to the newspaper paper. Research used to mean going to the library or sifting through documents in some government office. Now, of course, Google has become a verb synonymous with nearly instantaneous research that requires only a few keystrokes.

The Internet has changed newspapers even more fundamentally, though, by creating an additional venue through which to deliver news. With websites, newspapers are no longer constrained by print deadlines and delivery schedules. They can report news as it happens — and just as quickly as radio and television.

The Internet has been something of a double-edged sword, though. Even as newspapers have embraced the Internet in developing elaborate websites, they’ve struggled to figure out how to make money doing so. Some newspapers offer online access to some content, but not all. Other newspapers charge for online access. Still other papers offer online access as part of subscriptions that maintain print circulations. The Pew Research Center reported that 450 of the 1,380 newspapers in the United States have adopted what are called paywalls to generate revenue from online news. Shameless plug: The Business Times offers online access to the entirety of its content at no charge.

In an increasingly digital age, the existential question for the industry is whether or not newspapers remain relevant as a communication medium. I’d argue they do.

While an estimated 38 percent of adults in the U.S. get their news online and 72 percent use mobile devices, most of that news actually comes from newspapers. What would happen to the content providers if the content creators no longer existed?

Moreover, newspapers continue to offer the most original reporting.
A report by the Federal Communications Commission quantified the potential results of decreased newspaper staffing in terms of scandals not exposed, government waste not uncovered and health hazards not identified.

Back in the classroom at CMU, students said they don’t necessarily consume news in the sense they sit down with a printed newspaper and a cup of coffee. They prefer to get their news online, most frequently using their smartphones. At the same time, though, students said they’re most interested in following the local news that’s most likely to affect them. Moreover, they most trust local news sources over other media outlets. That’s reassuring.

As for me, I remain optimistic reports of the death of newspapers are exaggerated.