Newspaper companies need to stop lying to themselves, says longtime newspaper editor

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Media theorist Clay Shirky isn’t the only one telling newspaper companies and print-oriented journalists that they need to wake up and pay attention to the decline of their industry before they run out of time. Former Seattle Times editor David Boardman — who also happens to be president of the American Society of News Editors — wrote in a recent essay that the newspaper business spends too much of its time sugar-coating the reality of what’s happening.

Boardman described listening to a presentation that the president of the Newspaper Association of America gave at the World Newspaper Congress in Turin, Italy. In her speech, Caroline Little painted an uplifting picture of the state of affairs in her industry, a picture that Boardman called “a fiction where papers could invent a new future while holding on tightly to the past” — something similar to what Shirky called “newspaper nostalgia,” in a piece he wrote recently.

In his post, Boardman took each statement made by Little and presented the opposite viewpoint, or at least put each in a little more context: for example, the NAA president noted that total revenue for the U.S. newspaper industry was about $38 billion in 2013 — but what she didn’t mention is that this is about $12 billion or 35 percent lower than it was just seven years ago:

“What she said: The printed newspaper continues to reach more than half of the U.S. adult population. What she didn’t say: But the percentage of Americans who routinely read a printed paper daily continues its dramatic decline, and is somewhere down around 25 percent. ‘Reaching’ in Little’s reference can mean those people read one issue in the past week; it doesn’t mean they are regular daily readers of the printed paper.”

Should newspapers stop printing?

In a separate post, Allan Mutter — also a longtime newspaper editor who writes a blog called The Newsosaur — collected some of the depressing statistics about the decline of print, most of which were also apparently never mentioned by Little, including the fact that combined print and digital revenues have fallen by more than 55 percent in the past decade, and the industry’s share of the digital advertising market has been cut in half over the same period.

What’s Boardman’s solution? It’s not one that most newspapers will like: He suggests that most should consider giving up their weekday print editions altogether at some point over the next few years, and focus all of their efforts on a single print version on Saturday or Sunday, while pouring all of their resources into digital and mobile. Weekend papers account for a large proportion — in some cases a majority — of the advertising revenue that newspapers bring in, so giving up everything but the Saturday paper wouldn’t be as much of a loss, he argues.

In a recent piece at the Columbia Journalism Review about the New York Times, writer Ryan Chittum argued that the newspaper can’t afford to simply stop printing because the physical version brings in so much revenue. But could it stop printing everything but the Sunday paper? Chittum thinks it might be able to, and so does long-time online journalism watcher Steve Outing. Perhaps new digital-strategy head Arthur Gregg Sulzberger — a co-author of the paper’s much-publicized “innovation report” — is already crunching those numbers for a presentation to his father, the publisher, whose family controls the company’s stock.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Janie Airey

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