Do dead tree newspapers have a future?

Credit: SonovaMinThe future of newspapers

In 2001, I told my editor I was jumping from newspapers to this new-fangled thing called ‘the internet’. You’re being foolish, I was told. Then he actually said these words: “This internet thing is a flash in the pan.”

Fast-forward to today, when, after years of people being essentially trained not to pay for news, newspapers are shrinking – in size and the number of editions per week. Newsrooms have been gutted of staff, as more and more people get news online and, especially in recent years, their smartphones. These days, people are more likely to reach into their pockets to pay for coffee than news.

Despite this Whaleoil has established a successful subscription model. What is it that this New Media site is doing differently that the MSM could learn from?

(NZME managing editor Shayne Currie told a conference on the news media last year: “We made a big mistake when we made content available free. But there’s no going back.”)

Whaleoil’s content was free from the start and still is yet we are no longer reliant on advertising revenue to pay the bills. What are we providing that the MSM are not? The long-promised paywall has never been implemented so I can only assume that they fear that no one will be prepared to pay for their content.

[…] Quality’s also dropped – and we’re not talking, here, just about celebrity gossip and the use of sensational headlines by free news sites to get more clicks. With the sub-editing ranks being decimated, digital news is recycled into print editions with many of the original mistakes and typos.

[…] The merger conversation has contained some apocalyptic messages. Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood talked of an ‘endgame’ if it didn’t go through, while Fairfax New Zealand supremo Sinead Boucher warned it would very rapidly be forced to close and pull back from smaller centres. So, journalists are jumping before they’re potentially pushed. Just look at the intake of press secretaries in the Labour-NZ First-Green Party Government.

[…] Norris, now chief executive of ChristchurchNZ, the city’s promotion and economic development agency, was happy to talk on-the-record about the future of newspapers.

[…] I put to her that daily newspapers are on life support and on a downward spiral […] “Some are,” she admits. “Some are less sustainable than others.” But, she adds: “Many daily newspapers in New Zealand are incredibly profitable and have a long future.”

I wonder if she is referring to small local newspapers that are full of local news?

[…] So how long will daily papers last?

“More than a decade” in the case of The Press, she says. Dunedin’s a different market, but she still thinks the Otago Daily Times will be printed in a decade’s time.

Inevitably, the conversation turns back to digital. Norris reflects that, in the newsrooms she’s been in charge of, print is only a small part of their operation. Fairfax in the South Island is almost entirely focused on digital.

“And at the end of the day we also produce a print newspaper.”

Why? Print is like a buggy whip factory. They might make the best buggy whips in the country but there simply is no longer a market for it.

Credit: SonovaMin

Her argument decouples from that of others when she says the media company model “doesn’t rely on people buying a printed newspaper”. Why not do away with it, then?

“Because there are still people who love it. More than 100,000 people read it and rely on its content.” She adds it also offers “good print advertising solutions”.

The platform is irrelevant, she declares – what matters is the maintenance of strong, authentic journalism.

[…] scratch below the glossy surface and the media narrative in Masterton isn’t too different to other newspaper businesses. Circulation is difficult, Denholm says. Like most newspapers, the demographic of Times-Age readers is older.

“Our subscribers are literally dying. When I see a death notice in the paper, from a classified revenue point of view it’s good, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s probably a subscriber.”

[…] We haven’t got a strategy in place to replicate our current subscriber base. I wouldn’t know how to do it. You’ve hit the nail on the head, the youngsters probably don’t even know what a newspaper is.”

[…] Circulation figures, on the other hand, for those still wedded to dead-tree delivery, are dismal. Four papers sell more than 25,000 copies a day – New Zealand Herald (117,269), The Press (48,738), Wellington’s Dominion Post(48,092) and the Otago Daily Times (32,696). The circulation decline since 2007 is, respectively, 40 percent, 45 percent, 51 percent and, a feather in the cap for the Dunedin-headquartered ODT, 24 percent.

[…]  “I think that the death-knell for newspapers is going to come when it’s no longer economic to maintain their presses.”)

That I think is the key. The cost of online delivery is negligible and printing presses are the millstone around the MSM’s neck.

[…] “We can take ourselves down a dead-end street by placing too much importance on the means of delivery, in other words, on the maintenance of putting ink on paper,” he says.

“We need to start thinking more about how do we preserve the sort of in-depth journalism that we’re capable of producing in our newspapers, rather than the dead trees.”

Do any of you still buy a physical newspaper? If you are one of our hundreds of subscribers what was it about what Whaleoil offers that persuaded you to part with your hard-earned cash?

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If you agree with me that’s nice, but what I really want to achieve is to make you question the status quo, look between the lines and do your own research. Do not be a passive observer in this game we call life.

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