The ‘incidental reader’ and the future of newspapers


Will newspapers survive the digital age?

Last week, I attended a very informative PRSA-NCC 20+ LeaderPack luncheon organized by D.C. PR pros Jeff Ghannam and Tracy Schario. Kudos to both of them for putting on a great event and especially to Tracy for recruiting her colleague at the Pew Research Center, Amy Mitchell, to speak to us about the future of newspapers.

A lot of us PR folks are ex-journalists, so we have a keen interest in the health of our former profession. I started out as a community newspaper reporter in Franklin, Va., a place not unlike Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls or Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. I wrote everything from farm news to full-length feature stories. One day I was at a store grand opening; the next day I was covering a school board meeting. It was incredible experience for a newly minted college graduate.

Until about six or seven years ago, I harbored this fantasy that I would one day sell the house, cash in my 401(k) plan and buy a small newspaper. I would escape the rat race of D.C. and go back to the idyllic lifestyle of the small-town newspaperman.

I don’t have that fantasy any more. Newspapers aren’t doing very well, and reporters and editors are losing their jobs in droves.

So I listened intently as Amy, who oversees Pew’s Journalism Project, shared her insights on the current media landscape. Amid the glum news of stagnant advertising revenue and failure to change fast enough to compete in the digital era, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for newspapers.

First, the bad news:

  • Print advertising revenue continues to fall.
  • For every $1 gained in digital advertising, newspapers lose $16 in print advertising.
  • 72% of total digital mobile display advertising goes to just six companies, and none of them are traditional media companies.

Now, some good news:

  • Tablet and smartphone owners are using these devices to read news! Nearly two-thirds say they get news this way weekly.
  • 78% of tablet users read more than one in-depth article in a sitting.
  • 72% of tablet users read an in-depth article that they were not initially looking for.

Imagine, people reading for the sake of reading! Pew calls it an “incidental reader revival.” I’m all for that. Newspapers have also had some success in charging for content (so-called paywalls) and earning income from other sources such as consulting, conferences, delivery services and packaging their content for technology companies.

Amy noted that for the first time, The New York Times has more circulation revenue than advertising revenue. The Times has worked hard to win readers to its mobile platform, and it was one of the first newspapers to institute a digital pay plan.

Here in D.C., all eyes are on The Washington Post and what changes founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has in store for this struggling institution. Odds are, he will use his considerable technology and business acumen to transform the Post into a new kind of media company, one more focused on providing a service and less concerned about producing a product.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Although I no longer subscribe to a newspaper at home, I still enjoy picking one up and reading through it. It reminds me of the good old days of picas, points and printing presses. You remember those things, right?

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2 Responses to The ‘incidental reader’ and the future of newspapers

  1. mosprott says:

    Color me shocked that you aren’t a subscriber, Jay! I can’t live without the daily paper. I love to read the local papers when I travel, but consider myself lucky to have the Post and (NY) Times. Although I find something every day that makes me miss copyeditors, we still have the best newspapers in the country.

    But it is clear that the business model has to change – it hasn’t been about the news in a long time and as long as the print paper doesn’t pay for itself, the concern will be in a state of chaos.

    (Now, if someone could explain to me why the Post doesn’t put *all* of its content up on their site, I’d be grateful!)


    • Jay Morris says:

      Melissa, great comments. Yeah, I got tired of stopping and starting the paper every time I was gone. So I’ve gone digital at home. Saved a few trees in the process, too. 🙂 When I need a print fix, I can always go to the drug store and buy one. – Jay

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