Rumors of the death of newspapers are greatly exaggerated

Robert Scoble believes that newspapers are dead, and he’s right, if you make the assumption that all newspapers are printed in California and the only readers on the planet also reside in that very same state.

Rumors of the death of newspapers are greatly exaggerated, because it might surprise some people living in California to know that not only are they not living at the center of the universe, the rest of the world isn’t like California either.

Now I’m not saying that living in California is a bad thing or a good thing, there are solid arguments on both sides, however newspapers exist throughout the world, and the market conditions in California are very, very different than most of the planet.

Matthew Ingram correctly points out that news is not dead. Is the traditional newspaper model though in trouble? Ingram points out it is, but facing a market correction bought upon by competition from the internet doesn’t kill an entire industry. Sure, we are going to see newspapers shut down (indeed we already have), we are going to see continued declines in newspaper circulation, but are we going to see the death of newspapers? Not in the next 20 years, and then probably not for another 50 years after that, if at all in my life time.

For newspapers to die you must presume given the still existing desire for news that there must be a ubiquitous, easily accessible alternative available at all times. Here’s the thing. There isn’t. Sure, San Francisco is getting a city wide wireless network thanks to the very generous and benign (lol) folks at Google. 1 city on the entire planet may have in the coming years free WiFi everywhere. 1 city. In Australia it’s next to near impossible to get free WiFi anywhere, and alternatives such as EvDo and 3G tend to be expensive and not widely used for internet access…and that’s presuming you can always get coverage. I think I read somewhere a couple of years ago that GSM phone coverage was extended to the Sydney Underground (Cityrail) train network, but that’s some 15+ years since the introduction of mobile phone coverage to the city. No idea whether they get 3G of 2.5GSM GPRS or similar coverage. But that also presumes that this coverage would be used for obtaining news. Admittedly, it’s been over 10 years since I was a commuter, but the trains in Sydney were always full of people reading newspapers, and that’s back in the day before the City had free commuter newspapers. I’m betting that a packed train carriage in Sydney would still be full of newspaper readers, as indeed the NJ Transit, NY Subway and Toronto trains were when I was in North America last year.

The only way newspapers will die is when internet access is universal, and mostly free, and when everyone has the means to access the internet at all times. We are a long way away from ever reaching that point. The internet is eroding circulation amongst newspapers world wide, and yet we have no viable 24/7/365 anywhere alternative to print. If a country like Australia lags behind the US in terms of free WiFi access, there is a pile of nations behind Australia on that list that are even further behind.

One last note of the news marketplace. Some markets will be more resilient than others to the onslaught of competition from the internet. Australia has already seen massive market consolidation in the 1980-1990s where as, for example there is only one State based Daily where I live now. Cities such as Sydney have 2 local (state based) daily papers, and a couple of freebies for a population in excess of 5 million. When I was growing up the number was in excess of 4. Markets, and nations with many newspapers servicing a smaller number of people will see long standing titles disappear, but this is a notion of marketplace correction rather than death of an entire industry because competition from the internet may reduce the pool of readership, but it does not eliminate it, those left standing, who are smart enough to adapt their product to appeal to the broadest base of people will have a long future ahead of them.

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  1. Newspapers across the country are laying people off. Not just in California. The entire industry is under extreme business pressure.

    You could have attacked my position from any numbers of angles (saying something is dead when it obviously isn’t yet opens you up to a whole lot of such attacks) but this one simply doesn’t carry water.

  2. Another major here is that the “competition” online isn’t what it seems. The major print publishers are now fully online and they are their own competition. So you have to add internet revenues to print titles, not subtract.

  3. The newspapers’ popularity after the Romanian revolution, from December 1989, the existing newspapers were sold in millions of copies. Now, after almost 18 years, the number of daily copies/newspapers doesn’t goes over 200.000.

  4. Both of you are right, in a way. I’m not going to argue semantics.

    Obviously, newspapers are not dead yet. (Remeber the Monty Python skit? I’m not dead yet?) That said, many really are in their dying throes. Will it spell the absolute end of print? Probably, but the death throes will take a decade, I think.

    Consider: In my mid- to late-twenties in Toronto, I used to read 3-5 daily Toronto newspapers and a few American weekend editions, plus several weekly investment rags. (Plus loads of books.) I paid for and read ALL of them. Pretty much every section. And when I had time, I’d go to the Toronto Reference Library and read the New York Times as well.

    Now, I don’t even crack open a newspaper, even though I really want to read the weekend editions. Heck, I barely glance at the cover. And that’s the case though I love to read.

    So if a die-hard reader doesn’t read newspapers anymore, what about other readers? My mother owns a one of the last three convenience stores-cum-diners left in Canada. Her newspaper supply has been shrinking steadily over the past 26 years. Some weekends, she might sell 10 copies instead of the expected 30-60. It’s that bad.

  5. So who’s going to gather news, verify and distribute the news?

    Even if I restrict myself to online resources, I typically go to established news sources such as the online version of newspapers and TV networks. If I want to see who’s jabbering or pontificating then I try to read the blogs.

    Somebody has to take the time and effort to gather, edit and distribute the news and this has a cost. I would much rather read an article from a trained journalist than a blogger with with information gleaned from some source and colored with his or her opinion.

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