the transition to digital journalism

Print Editions Decline

A steady decline in print circulation and a precipitous drop in advertising revenue in 2008 and 2009, especially classified advertising, have taken their toll on newspapers and newspaper chains.

Some have been forced out of business, such as the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post Intelligencer (at least its print operation - an online-only version continues) and the Ann Arbor News (which also will continue an online edition as well as a print product twice a week).

Others filed for bankruptcy reorganization, such as Tribune Company, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Philadelphia Newspapers company, the Chicago Sun Times, the Journal Register Co., American Community Newspapers, Freedom Communications, Heartland Publications, Creative Loafing and the Columbian newspaper in Vancouver. Others, such as Morris Publishing and Affiliated Media (the parent company of MediaNews Group), did bankruptcy reorganization filings prearranged with creditors.

Especially hard hit have been newspapers that were more purchased recently, such as the Tribune, Minneapolis and Philadelphia papers, and thus have owners with huge debt loads, or those in areas that still have competing daily papers, such as Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Seattle, Detroit and Tucson.

Newspapers have taken a variety of other measures to save money, preserve the print product, and try to weather the storm:

  • Layoffs and buyouts of employees (see the Paper Cuts map that details the staff reductions)
  • Instituting pay freezes and unpaid furloughs
  • Dropping contributions to 401-K plans and renegotiating salaries and pension payments with unions
  • Partnering with other newspapers to share coverage and content
  • Eliminating delivery of the newspaper to outlying areas
  • Consolidating or dropping sections of the daily paper
  • Discontinuing some features, such as stock listings
  • Reducing the number of pages in each edition
  • Shrinking the size of the paper
  • Eliminating editions entirely on days that attract the fewest advertisers and readers

Some papers are also changing the kind of coverage provided in the print product, focusing less on breaking news, which the Internet is much better suited to deliver, and more on analytical or contextual stories.

For example, compare the front page of the print edition of the Arizona Republic with the home page of azcentral.com, the Arizona Republic's online site.

Arizona Republic Print Edition

 Arizona Republic newspaper front page

Arizona Republic Online Edition

 Arizona Republic online home page

Both editions are from the same day, December 23, 2008.

The print edition contains longer feature stories, "sit-down" news to be perused, or articles about more leisurely activities. 

The website is updated throughout the day with breaking news and shorter articles, and offers searchable services like events calendars, dining guides, etc. to cater to the different interests of an online audience.

Eliminating Print Editions

Some newspapers are going a step further and dropping the least profitable of their daily editions - usually Saturdays, Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

Examples of newspapers eliminating editions (see also this list compiled by AP)

The hope is that enough readers and thus advertisers will remain local to the print product that revenues will not decline substantially. But breaking the daily news reading habit threatens to further erode print audience loyalty and accelerate the existing decline in newspaper readership.

To ease the transition for older readers still wedded to the newspaper format, some newspapers also offer a digital edition online. This is an electronic version of the newspaper, which appears in a form similar to the print version and can be downloaded from the newspaper's website.

But there is little evidence that such digital editions are very popular with readers, and critics say they are transplanting a print format into a medium that demands a very different product.

Ken Doctor, a long-time analyst and consultant on digital media, especially newspapers, has said:

"They are essentially counterintuitive products: older readers who may like the idea of 'reading the paper' in its traditional format don't like reading online; younger readers who like reading online find it nonsensical to read yesterday's news -- and pay for it -- when they can news of the moment free online."

Source: In Desperation, Detroit Papers Flip the Switch, Content Bridges weblog

See also this Associated Press story about the experiences of the Detroit papers a year after they dropped home delivery of the printed paper on some days and launched an electronic edition. MinnPost also has a story and a chart about how successful e-editions have been for newspapers.

Some magazines, especially general interest publications, also are reducing their pages or cutting back on the number editions they publish. U.S. News & World Report went from being a weekly to a biweekly to a monthly in 2008. See this New York Times story about the changes weekly news magazines are undergoing.

National broadcast news networks similarly have considered paring back nightly news shows, which tumbled in popularity during the 1990s, largely due to the advent of cable news and then the Internet. See the New York Times story, Broadcast TV Faces Struggle to Stay Viable.

Local television stations have seen more recent declines in viewership and advertising revenues. See the Wall Street Journal story, Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future.

Readings and Resources