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Demise exaggerated
May 08, 2009

Samuel Clemens, alias Mark Twain, famously quipped in 1897, “The report of my death was greatly exaggerated,” when informed his obituary was run in the London Times. 

Of course, Clemens lived for many years after the premature reporting of his death, with newspapers around the globe able to include obituaries of his 

actual demise in 1910.

The false obituary in the Times is 

similar to what is now reported about the fate of newspapers. Today, obituaries about the demise of the newspaper 

industry are common. 

It’s nothing new. Actually, it’s quite old “news.” Years ago, I stumbled upon an article from the 1920s predicting newspapers would be replaced by radio. The belief expressed in the article from the Roaring Twenties was that radio was the “new” media source with an ability to provide up-to-date “happening” coverage, while newspapers contained only day-old stale news. The youth of the Flapper Era were said to be abandoning newspapers in favour of the electronic tube-filled behemoths that devoured  a living room corner. At the time, radios as furniture became a middle-class status symbol. Of course, newspapers survived radio, just as the printed word survived the “new” medium of television. If anything, newspapers have been proven to possess remarkable staying power despite constant proclamations of their demise. 

In recent days, a number of U.S. daily newspapers have actually died, including the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News, the No.2 daily in Denver, Colorado, and Seattle’s No. 2 daily, the Post-Intelligencer, while newspapers from Los Angeles to Boston are finding times tough. In fact, the Boston Globe, the newspaper of note in New England, was slated to lose US $85 million this year — a third of its operating budget — but by reaching an agreement with its workers the newspaper has survived to be read another day.

The problem with the Globe is that it’s not locally owned, but is ruled from the corporate headquarters at The New York Times Co., which had threatened to file a notice of intention to shut down the Massachusetts newspaper on May 1. The New York-based company delayed its decision after reaching an agreement with the six unions representing Globe employees for cost savings of $20 million needed “to help put the Globe on a sound financial footing,” according to a press release. It is commonly inferred that the Times intentionally cut costs at the Globe in order to sell the newspaper.

If one listens to American financial guru Warren Buffett, the sale will never take place. He was recently quoted as saying, he won’t buy any newspaper “at any price today.”

The tales of newspapers’ demise are the result of the Internet, which has replaced 

radio and television as the “new” medium 

driving the printed word into extinction.

But, is that really so?

Actually, the Internet and the availability of “free” reading material is only a partial answer to the woes of newspapers. On-line classified ads are where the greatest impact on newspaper revenue has been felt. In the U.S., this has been a significant factor, but in Canada classified ads are a much smaller percentage of advertising revenue.

The problems facing American newspapers today are more a function of a poor U.S. economy in a deep recession, resulting in a lack of advertising revenue. The absence of advertising dollars is equally affecting all other media, including magazines, radio,  network television and the Internet. In Canada, Winnipeg-based CanWest Global Communications Inc. is in the midst of its own anxiety over the National Post, but overall, Canadian newspapers are faring significantly better than their American counterparts.

The difficulty with the Internet is that the newspaper industry has not yet come up with a cost-effective way to display its product on-line. Subscriptions are obviously not the answer, since those clicking their way through the Web typically want their news free. Placing a newspaper on-line is not a cheap proposition and is invariably a money pit subsidized by the sale of newsstand copies of a newspaper,  subscriptions and the ads appearing in its printed pages. But when ad revenue decreases and less copies are sold, newspapers face the prospect of adding more red to their bottom line.

One suggestion is charging pennies for article viewing, which means a tantalizing first paragraph is freely seen and then to continue reading the entire article the viewer must agree to pay a few cents. It’s reasoned cents versus dollars would be a more attractive alternative, and viewers are more willing to click onto those articles that stimulate their interest. The thought is that the cents will over time turn into dollars.

The other reality is that newspaper advertising is cost effective. Ad agencies know the strength of newspapers and advise their clients to make use of the printed medium. Agencies look to provide their clients with the best return on their investment, which in most cases remains newspapers. All a client wants is for the right products to be seen by the right people — results are the determining factor in any advertising spending.

A Vancouver Sun article by David Akin quoted Penny Stevens, the president of Toronto-based media buyer Media Experts, who said newspapers have the ability to quickly reach a large target audience.

Others commented in the article that advertisers like newspapers because consumers often seek out the ads just as they look for editorial content. Also, ads in newspapers from a number of companies allow readers to do comparison shopping while conveniently seated at the breakfast table. 

What the same advertising firms found is that the editorial content is important — one without the other is not viable. “The content has to be the most important part of a decent newspaper,” Stevens told Akin. “Otherwise it becomes a flyer. It’s the whole notion of trust, integrity and reliability ... the integrity and credibility of the content will somehow be seen to be rubbing off on the advertiser.”

Newspaper readership has always been stronger in Canada than the U.S., with polls showing 73 per cent of all adult Canadians reading a printed version of a daily newspaper at least once a week.

Newspapers have survived the advent of radio, television and will survive the 

Internet, so the reports of their death are “greatly exaggerated.”