Commentary: Newspapers are transforming, not dying

The (Tacoma) News TribuneJanuary 5, 2012 

We live in turbulent economic times, and the TNT isn’t immune from those forces. But I’m reminded again of the resilience of this hybrid print-digital-mobile news and advertising company that sails under The News Tribune banner.

The economic turbulence felt by everyone in this economy, the rise of the Internet and now the growth in smartphone and tablet usage leads to a lot of confusion and erroneous assumptions about what’s going on inside our business. Within the past week, for instance, I got an email from a reader who presumed we were on the verge of bankruptcy, and I received a forwarded link from a friend to an article that speculated that print newspapers would be gone in five years.

The first presumption, about bankruptcy, is demonstrably untrue. The financial performance of The McClatchy Co., which owns this newspaper and about 30 others around the country, is a matter of public record. While technology and the economy force us to transform, as they have many companies, we’re solvent. The company covers its expenses and makes money.

The other speculation – that print newspapers will be gone in five years – is a matter of opinion.

My opinion is that print newspapers will be around long after that. Part of my view rests on experience. I’ve been hearing similar predictions for probably 25 or 30 years. Yet newspapers remain strong, even dominant, in most markets they serve. Print newspapers – or something like them – have been around for more than 500 years. They survive because they work.

In modern technological terms they serve up aggregated, curated, hyper-local content and deliver it directly to the consumer. That has always been valuable; it remains so. It’s true that weekday circulation is down in the past few years (although year-over-year Sunday circulation is way up). Some of that is because demand is dropping. But how much of the reduction is driven by frugal and financially stressed consumers, free access to our news on the Internet and rising subscription prices necessitated by reduced ad revenue (again, driven by a depressed economy)?

And, while print subscriptions are down somewhat, the local audience for our news has never been greater. We have more than 1.2 million unique visitors to our website each month and monthly mobile views on smartphones of about 1.4 million a month. And our reach in the South Sound – when one combines print and digital – still dwarfs that of local television or radio. And in some respects – particularly with the advent of tablet computers and a pay model for subscriptions on those devices – it’s really less critical whether or when the print product goes away.

In many ways reading a publication on a tablet is very much like the print experience. So, in that universe, print will survive, even if it’s not on real paper. A tablet is really digital type on virtual paper, with interactivity and video and audio thrown in. Our commitment isn’t to continue to fell trees eternally to produce the newspaper; it’s to deliver the news in ways consumers want it – in print, on a smartphone, on PC, laptop or tablet.

So part of what convinces me we have a strong future is continued – and growing – demand for our product by readers. But two other recent bits of evidence are just as reassuring. First was the weight of the paper on Thanksgiving morning. More than 5 pounds. More than 40 inserts (more of them than last year). And page after page of advertising.

Second was the Friday paper last week – page after page of newspaper advertising by car dealers, a trend that’s been growing for months. Advertisers – smart businesses at the national and local level – don’t support us in such numbers out of charity or pure civic spirit. They advertise because it works. It helps them sell things. It helps grow their businesses.

So despite a tough economy and the changes it’s brought, I’m feeling good about our future. When more readers want our news, on more platforms, than ever before, and when advertisers still invest in our dominant reach and results, there’s good reason to be hopeful.

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