Because I have a long history in the newspaper business, I’m often asked by people how long do I think traditional newspapers will be printing an actual paper. I’ve always been optimistic about some version of the print product being available in the news industry.
But as I view the reading habits of my college students, I’m not so sure. Clearly, news publishers have mixed loyalties to the print product, and charge excessive prices to those who grew up reading news in print and still like holding a newspaper in their hands. The business model will dictate the future of the printed product, and right now it make some financial sense to keep printing if enough people are willing to pay.
Publishers of traditional newspapers now split their resources between the printed product and the digital version. That can’t continue forever. Most publishers have shut down their printing operations and contract with outside press operation, often hundreds of miles away. This makes news in print even more out-of-date, but it’s also cheaper to produce because newspapers don’t have to maintain pressroom operations and pay salaries and benefits to press crews. Many have also cut back on the days that they offer a print product.
For now, newspaper publishers can make money with high charges for print and limiting production costs through outsourcing printing. But readers willing to be gouged for the luxury of reading news in print are a limited number, and getting smaller daily. My journalism students at Fresno State are avid news readers, but they don’t read a print product. I know this because I surveyed them on this question during the fall semester.
This generation of news consumers, who grew up with digital devices, is the future of the printed product. They think print is a wasteful relic that’s outdated the second it comes off the press. They read news, but only online and their platform of choice is their phones — the digital device that consumes the majority of their day.
So it’s clear that succeeding generations will not be looking to print. I can’t predict when the last newspaper will roll off a printing press, but it’s coming at a much faster pace than I would have predicted five years ago. There may be boutique publishers printing some form of a newspaper for nostalgia’s sake, but there’s not a business model that I know of that can sustain a print product for much longer.
Sure, the major newspaper brands — New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal — have the national reach to maintain a successful print product. But that, too, likely will change in 10 or 15 years when digital natives are the majority of their readership.
When a new publication is created, it’s entirely an online operation. Printing presses used to be the mainstay of a newspaper operation, but when The Fresno Bee contracted out its printing operation, it couldn’t give away its printing press located in its downtown Fresno building. Now The Bee is out of the building entirely, with most of its staff working from home. That once state-of-the-art press now is a three-story paper weight.
Newspaper publishers understand that print no longer is how most of their readers access news. In fact, they don’t even try to sell their print product anymore. I saw this personally during the week after Christmas.
I spent that time in San Diego visiting my daughter and was delighted that I was still offered a printed newspaper during check-in at my hotel. But it wasn’t the local newspaper. It was USA Today, a national newspaper. The San Diego Union-Tribune wasn’t available in print, and you couldn’t buy it anywhere nearby. I wanted to see what was going on in San Diego, but instead I got a national newspaper.
So even if you want to buy a local newspaper, publishers make you work for it. The Union-Tribune wasn’t interested in selling its print product, even though there was demand for it. For example, Oregon and North Carolina football fans were in town for the Holiday Bowl and they surely wanted to read the local paper’s take on this bowl game.
The U-T’s excellent coverage of bowl week was available online, but the print edition would be a nice souvenir for Oregon and North Carolina fans. But the publisher of the local paper made a business decision that these short-term sales didn’t make sense in its business plan.
Printed newspapers aren’t dead yet, but their demise is coming fast. Just ask your kids when was the last time they read a printed newspaper. They are the future of print.