Monday, September 27, 2010

Newsprint Going the Way of the Buggy Whip

I started my news carrying career at age 11 when I took over my older brother’s paper route. That job lasted until I was nearly 17. Back then I delivered papers in the afternoon six days a week. I had to get up early on Sunday mornings to deliver the biggest paper of the week. But that was only once a week. And it was on the weekend.

I delivered the paper day in and day out regardless of weather conditions. I collected subscription payments from my customers every month by going to each home in person. Except for a couple of oddballs, every home on my route took the newspaper every day.

That’s all changed. After starting my own family, I didn’t subscribe to the newspaper for many years. Then we succumbed to an offer for a temporary low price on a subscription. We found that we frequently didn’t even bother to take the rubber band off the thing. Unopened papers would stack up in the corner of the living room until we threw them out. So we let the subscription lapse.

A few years ago, my two oldest sons got paper routes. By then all deliveries were early in the morning. Where it had been easy for me to come home from school and spend an hour or so doing my paper route, my sons were rolling out of bed long before sunrise. Sometimes their schoolwork suffered.

By the time my boys started delivering newspapers, fewer than half of the homes on their routes took the paper. There were many different subscription patterns: daily, weekend only, Sunday only, extra Sunday paper, etc. While my boys didn’t have to collect subscription fees, they had to keep track of who got the paper on which days.

Our family did the paper routes for a couple of years, but we eventually had had enough. The early morning paradigm simply didn’t work as well for our family as had the afternoon delivery system of my childhood. But by the time we gave up the routes, members of the family had become accustomed to having the newspaper in the home. So we started subscribing.

Today’s newspaper is a far cry from the papers I delivered as a kid. There is far less news content. Most stories are abbreviated and there’s far fewer of them. Much of the content is no longer “news” by the time we read the paper.

While some members of the family make a habit of reading a lot of the paper, I am more of a spot reader. By the time I get the printed newspaper, I’ve already read most of the content that interests me on the paper’s website anyway. (Some online content is available to me only because I am a subscriber.)

It’s easy to derive the main demographic of print edition readers. I flipped through today’s edition and saw page after page of ads aimed primarily at senior citizens. While the ranks of this demographic are constantly being replenished, the percentage of this group that relies on newsprint is shrinking.

Jay Wamsley had a post a few days ago that described 10 factors in the decline of newsprint. The reasons behind this decline are, he says, “much more layered, much more complex” than can be offered any single explanation.

Whether Wamsley’s 10 points are totally accurate or not, it is undeniable that a huge cultural shift is underway. It is causing significant changes to the news market. Those that have long held top position in the news world are understandably upset that multi-faceted competition is destroying their vaunted kingdom. Disgruntled about losing their gatekeeper status — loss of power over what others think — they are frequently reduced to name calling, suggesting that those that don’t subscribe to newspapers are uninformed barbarians. They seem oblivious to the odd fact of life that insulting your potential customer base is unlikely to win customers from that group.

Some hard core news folks are reduced to pandering for government subsidies to keep the façade of their naturally diminishing dominions artificially in place, at least for a while. Although such action may have temporarily saved the likes of AIG and GM, subsidies would not have kept the buggy whip industry afloat for long once people adopted automobiles.

Newsies have rarely demonstrated much of an understanding of economic principles. So let’s put this as simply as possible. Despite all of your high minded declarations of the importance of your product, no product is so valuable that its production can long be sustained when no demand for the product exists.

Put out a product that people are willing to buy — willing to buy without government coercion — and you will have a viable business. Put out a product that people are not willing to buy and you will go out of business. It doesn’t matter that masses of people were once willing to purchase your wares. Times change. If your business model can’t keep up with those changes, you cannot stay in business.

It’s harsh. But facts are facts.

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