“The Future of Newspapers:” The Third Annual Martin Langeveld Interview

The past two years I have blogged interviews with my friend Martin Langeveld called “The Future of Newspapers.” Martin, a former newspaper publisher, has been tracking this story for several years with regular dispatches from the front on his blog at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard.  He also comments on this story on his personal blog, News after Newspapers. I ended the interview last year with this comment.  “We’ll see if newspapers survive long enough for us to have another interview next year.”  It appears that they are still here, so Martin kindly consented to another round.

RF: In our first interview way back in 2009 you said, “There are many individual newspapers, especially smaller ones, that are still profitable on an operating basis and probably have some life left in them. Eventually, however, I think the daily newspaper will be a thing of the past.”  Do you still think that, and if so, when will they be gone? 

ML: Yes, I still think so. The metrics for printed newspapers are unrelentingly negative, and printed newspapers continue to be in a death spiral, although it’s a long, slow one. They have had 22 consecutive quarters of advertising revenue declines, and an even longer streak (25 years or so) of circulation declines. In terms of circulation per 100 households, the decline has been virtually unbroken since 1945 (it’s now about 25 copies sold per 100 households). And if you drill into this deeper, as I’ve been doing recently using numbers from the University of Chicago’s long-term General Social Survey, you find that (a) each successive population cohort (the GSS conveniently sorts into 8-year cohorts) reads printed newspapers less than its predecessor; and (b) as each cohort ages, over time it tends to diminish its newspaper readership. So this means not only that 20-somethings read newspapers less than 30-somethings and 30-somethings less than 40-somethings (etc.); but that as those 20-, 30- and 40-somethings get older, they decrease their readership of printed newspapers. And those trends have been unchanged for at least 40 years.

My charts of these trends are not yet ready for publication. But if you extrapolate from the past trends they point to newspaper readership dropping from the current 35 copies per 100 households to about 20 per 100 in the next five years. Somewhere along the way, the rest of the advertisers will bail out, and that will be the final straw. Even today, advertisers have many new options, especially in social media, and every year they are shifting more of their budgets into digital channels. 

RF:  As you noted in the first interview, the decline of the newspaper has been going on for over forty years.  And last year you mentioned that news executives were making Dilbert-like assertions that the decline was slowing (I confess to having said something like that myself at some church meetings, but I digress.)  What are the execs saying this year about the future of their business?

ML: They’re being more realistic about recognizing that the end of printed newspapers is in sight, and that to survive, they simply must find digital business models that work. They’re trying hard, and there are actually a few bright spots to highlight.

One is a company called Journal Register (JRC), which used to be the most bottom-line oriented, least respected company in the industry. They were highly leveraged, operated newspapers formulaically without respecting or understanding the communities they were in, and ultimately went bankrupt a few years ago. When they emerged from bankruptcy, with their former lenders now owning the stock, they hired a CEO, John Paton, who set about turning JRC into a digital-first news company. They’ll publish newspapers as long as there’s profit in printing them, but 80% of their employees are focused on digital publishing and digital sales. And it’s working. One of their newspapers is the Register Citizen of Torrington, Conn., which used to be owned by the Miller family of Pittsfield as part of the group I worked for. They sold it to JRC, and the former JRC management ran it into the ground. Now, under Paton, the Register Citizen has moved into new offices that include a café, and they welcome the community to come in, use computers, talk with reporters and editors, and even attend news meetings. This kind of local engagement makes sense and is essential in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Other newspaper companies are paying attention. 

Here and there, newspaper companies are launching innovative tablet applications, for example, a product called Tapin BayArea, created by MediaNews Group in partnership with a company called Tackable. I wrote about this for NiemanLab.

The trouble is, these kinds of bright spots are few and far between; the industry as a whole is not embracing digital-first, nor is it experimenting with things like Tapin.

RF:  I had one of those “the future is now” moments earlier this year. In last year’s interview you were talking about the durability of print and you said: “the user interface as well as the permanence of the printed book won’t be improved enough in a digital format. I don’t imagine church liturgists reading the scripture lesson from an iPad, for example (although come to think of it, why not, really?).”  In April I experienced just that: a worship leader reading the lessons from his smart-phone!  So let’s talk about the explosion of various new pads, phones and e-readers.  These were around in 2009 when we first spoke, and we noted last year that their popularity was accelerating, but it seems to me that we have hit some kind of critical mass where these devices aren’t just for early adopters and techno-weenies anymore.

ML: Right.  Let’s take smart phones: more than 90 percent of all Americans 13 and older now use cell phones, and by sometime next year, more than half of those phones will be smartphones (right now, it’s more than a third). Anyone with an iPhone is carrying around more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969 when they put astronauts on the moon. And probably more data storage capacity as well. 

But the big change is not so much these amazing devices as their connectivity. With 3G wireless in most places and 4G on the way, we basically have mobile connectivity everywhere. You can surf the web while riding down the interstate, hopefully as passenger. Same on Amtrak trains, on buses and increasingly on airplanes. Not only can news and information reach you anywhere, anytime, but of course so can advertising. And you can respond to that advertising directly, from wherever you are. Mobile advertising is the fastest-growing segment of the ad business, and mobile commerce (buying goods and services via cell phones and tablets) is the fastest-growing e-commerce sector. 

(By the way, as part of a recent rundown on how people are using cell phones, there’s also this: 13% of people say they’ve pretended to be using their phone so others don’t bother them.)

I dropped my landline this year — Bev and I both have cell phones, and we just couldn’t see the point of a phone connected to the wall anymore. Desktop computers will probably become similarly anachronistic except when you need big screens for graphics work and the like. Tablets will probably become the dominant device for most applications, both for business and leisure.

As part of this, increasingly we’re going to be using two devices at the same time. For example, you can watch a baseball game on TV, but if you’re a stats junkie, you can follow along on the tablet to get the pitch-by-pitch stats. Or you can discuss the game on Twitter. Lately I’m reading Pynchon again (“Against the Day” in actual book form), but I’m simultaneously scrolling through the online Pynchon wiki and Googling on my iPhone to decipher all the literary and scientific references in the book. 

So, everything is moving in a mobile direction, including news. Every minute — every 60 seconds — two hours of video is uploaded to YouTube from mobile devices (out of more than 35 hours of video per minute in total). Now, half of that is funny cat videos (and the like). But the other half is more serious stuff, including news. And basically this allows anyone to break and report news, as we saw from Tahrir Square and many other events. Eventually, the intermediaries will disappear, and you’ll be able to search and connect directly with reporters (and non-reporters) on the ground, covering a particular situation.

RF:  Last years the New York Times had just announced it was putting some of its content behind a pay-wall.  I have to confess that I read the Times less now on-line because I don’t want to hit the threshold to pay.  I go to CNN, BBC, the Washington Post or the Huffington Post.  It seems to me that there are so many free sites to look at that many would choose not to pay.  Do you know how that experiment is going?

ML: Let me defer to a fellow blogger, Matt Ingram, who has just published a pretty good wrap on how the NYTimes experiment is going. You and I are in the same boat, I think — we grew up reading the Times, we stuck to the habit, on and off, through adulthood, and we became frequent visitors to its website. But now that there’s a barrier, we’re treading with caution, although the monthly threshold is easy enough to overcome — search and social links don’t count, so if you’ve hit the limit, just search for the story on Google and access it that way. And there are other ways, including simply switching to a different browser, or going into incognito mode. (See also Jeff Sonderman’s column at Poynter on why anyone would pay for the Times online when you can get past the paywall any number of ways.)

But, in any case, you’re right that free news remains abundant, especially from non-newspaper sites. Which means, I think, that the newspapers are slowly digging their graves by building paywalls. Before paywalls, they already had a miniscule fraction (less than 1 percent) of online attention in terms of pageviews and time spent, and their share of online advertising revenue was declining (in other words, newspaper online ad revenue was not growing as fast as all other online ad revenue). Paywalls are not going to improve that situation, and paywall revenue is not going to make up for the missing ad revenue. 

This is not to say that subscriptions for online content can’t work — they’re working for sites like the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and many others, in which the common denominator is specialized content of value to a niche audience. The NYTimes is between two worlds — some of their content is unique and valuable to a particular audience willing to pay for it (although only the Times knows who they are and what that content is — my guess is that it is New York metro area “insider” stuff that upscale New Yorkers want, need and are willing to pay for).  But much of their content is available, as you note, from CNN, WaPo, BBC and the like. Ultimately, perhaps they will differentiate between the two, and let you help yourself to as much general news as you want, while whacking you with the paywall when you hit your 20th Upper East Side restaurant review.

The biggest question mark is how paywalls will work for smaller local newspapers, such as the Brattleboro Reformer in my area, which is launching a paywall this month. The Reformer is in the same unit of MediaNews Group as your paper, the Berkshire Eagle; apparently the Eagle’s paywall may follow if experimentation at the Reformer, the Bennington Banner and the North Adams Transcript has favorable results. These papers may well have a lot of content that local readers can’t get from other sources. The question is, will they be willing to pay for it? We’ll have to wait and see.

RF:  I have noticed that two journals I pay for, the Economist and the New Yorker, are gradually increasing their daily on-line offerings with blogs and updates.  I have actually not quite caught up with this, since although I am a blogger myself and get a lot of news on-line, I still think of these as print journals.  Is this an example of news media breaking out of the established categories?

ML: I think it shows that these publishers understand the 24/7 nature of the web and the fact that online, there is no such thing as an “issue” or “edition” — you can publish whenever your material is ready and you don’t have to wait for the next print cycle. Online readers are not plugged into cycles. In the old days, you know that the Times and Daily News were a morning paper, and the Post was a PM paper. But online, nobody thinks of a website as a “morning” or “afternoon” site. (Somehow, Rupert Murdoch missed this point in the launch of The Daily, an “iPad newspaper,” much ballyhooed at its launch in February but not much heard from since then, that’s put together daily and downloaded to your tablet “each morning.”)   

RF:  You once mentioned the fragmentation of the news market into ever narrower niches, and with it the abandonment of a Walter Cronkite God’s-view “objectivity.”  I have FB friends that only watch Fox News and their view of politics seems to me like they are on another planet.  There is no “paper of record” anymore.  Is this good for the world?

ML: Fox, it seems, is simultaneously the second most-trusted news source (42% vs. PBS 50%) and the most distrusted (46%). And John Stewart of the Daily Show, with no pretense of objectivity whatsoever, a few years ago was rated the most trusted newscaster in America. Stewart does a great job as a Fox watchdog, but of course not many Fox viewers watch Stewart.

In theory, fragmentation — more points of view, more diversity, the ability, as described above, to connect directly with a reporter or blogger covering a breaking event — should be a good thing, but not if people don’t take the trouble to listen to more than one point of view, to take on the curation or editing job that was always done for them in the past.

And fragmentation seems to create a license to not be objective. As a result, if you count all the bloggers, all the niche sites, along with the traditional media, we have more media diversity than ever, but also more polarization than ever. And no one is authoritatively claiming that Cronkite platform of just telling us “that’s the way it is” with minimal spin.

But ultimately I don’t think you can put the blame for increased political divisiveness in the US on the media. Other things have a lot more to do with it: the ongoing sluggishness of the economy, the influence that money has on politics, the increasingly lopsided distribution of wealth and income, the negative aspects of globalization, failures in parts of our educational system, the breakdown of civility and the ability to get things done in Congress, and more. Plenty of responsible media are reporting about these things, and I don’t think the situation would be any better if there were a new Cronkite in the mix. 

RF:  What implications if any, does the Rupert Murdoch hacking scandal have for the news business?

ML: Not much, in the US; the fallout is largely confined to the UK (although we can’t be sure because new shoes continue to drop, and there are apparently investigations under way on this side of the pond). 

Murdoch’s company, News Corp., is really an entertainment company of which newspapers form a relatively small part. Fox News is more important to it than all the papers put together. But, newspapering is where Murdoch cut his teeth. He’s still very passionate about it and can afford to lose money while experimenting with solutions. He demonstrated this by investing $30 million or more in the launch of the The Daily, mentioned above. He invested a Silicon-Valley R&D lab, Slingshot Labs, which worked on other digital projects. He invested in MySpace, which turned out to be a bad pick, but also in Hulu, which is doing well (by the way, besides my land line, I’ve also given up cable in favor of streaming online video from Hulu and other sources).

But all in all, with The Daily mainly a dud, with the Wall Street Journal mainly an investor-oriented niche publication, with the scandal mainly a UK problem, that leaves Murdoch’s impact on US news content and consumption mainly via Fox News. I suppose that behind the scenes at News Corp. properties there is some dusting-off of the ethics policies going on, but that’s not going to have much impact on how Fox does business.

RF: Thanks, Martin, I hope newspapers stick around a bit longer just because really enjoy this conversation with you.
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2 thoughts on ““The Future of Newspapers:” The Third Annual Martin Langeveld Interview

  1. Pingback: Nicholas Carr: 2012 will bring the appification of media | TechnologyNews

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