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Inside Story Americas
The death of the newspaper?
As more Americans go online to consume their news, we ask if we are witnessing the death of the newspaper industry.
Last Modified: 30 May 2012 14:06

New Orleans will soon become the largest US city without a daily newspaper. And as many other titles struggle in the digital age, we ask: How will traditional newspapers survive?

"Ultimately, at any given newspaper, there's only five to 10 per cent of the readers who really care if the paper lives or dies - for whom it's not just a convenience ... and that core I think is increasingly going to be the people propping those newsrooms up from the customers' side."

- Clay Shirky, a new media expert at New York University

The Times Picayune played a crucial role in helping New Orleans and its people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - earning it the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. But now, after more than 175 years, the daily has announced that it is slashing its print publications from seven to three days a week.

The reason behind the cutback is the continuing digital revolution in the way news is consumed - with more and more people preferring to pick and choose stories from a variety of online sources.

In the face of this, traditional news outlets have been struggling to find the perfect online business model, with many of us too used to getting our news for free.

But the Times Picayune joins hundreds of others in the US who have closed down or drastically cut operations since the beginning of 2009. 

Among those forced out of print are the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Christian Science Monitor has shifted online, with only a weekly print edition now.

Others, such as Detroit's two newspapers, have slashed home delivery to three days a week, while the San Francisco Chronicle narrowly avoided closure after employees made steep concessions.

"Most newspapers are still in business. They were incredibly profitable throughout the 90s and throughout much of the first half of this century as well .... The newspaper business is about half the size it was just five years ago. There is no question that there is trouble but we are falling from such a tremendous height that we still haven't hit the ground yet."

- Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Washington Post

Some newspaper companies, such as the Tribune Company, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Freedom Communications, have filed for bankruptcy protection.

But then there is the American billionaire entrepreneur Warren Buffet, who appears to still have faith in print journalism and just last week bought more than 60 newspapers.

"We must rethink the industry's initial response to the internet," Buffet said. "The original instinct of newspapers then was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print. This is an unsustainable model."

Buffett went on to describe his future purchasing plans: "We will favour towns and cities with a strong sense of community. If a citizenry cares little about its community, it will eventually care little about its newspaper ... we will focus on small and mid-sized papers in long-established communities."

But what has been lost in print has been gained online. Newspapers across the US have gained readers in the past few months as more have purchased digital subscriptions. Digital circulation now accounts for more than 14 per cent of overall circulation - up from 8.6 per cent in March 2011.

The New York Times reported a 73 per cent gain in circulation thanks to digital gains after establishing an online paywall - in fact, it now has more digital subscribers than print subscribers on weekdays.

So, is it premature to say that we are witnessing the death of the newspaper industry? And where should it go from here?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Anand Naidoo, discusses with guests: Paul Farhi, a media reporter for the Washington Post; Andrea Stone, the senior national correspondent for the Huffington Post, a leading online newspaper; and Clay Shirky, a professor and new media expert at New York University.


THE US NEWSPAPER INDUSTRY:

  • The internet surpassed newspapers as the main news source in 2010
  • Print ads account for 86% of the newspaper industry's revenue
  • Daily newspapers still have about 45 million paying customers in the US
  • Vocus report: 152 newspapers stopped operating in 2011
  • State of the Media report: 151 newspapers stopped operating in 2010
  • Thousands of journalists have been laid-off as newspapers close around the US
  • Print advertising revenue fell by $2.1bn in 2011
  • Half of all smartphone owners say they use their devices for news
  • The newspaper industry is worth about $34bn yearly - down from $59bn in 2000
  • Stock prices for newspapers fell by about 25% in 2011
  • Digital circulation now accounts for 14% of newspaper circulation
  • Weekday digital circulation has grown by nearly 62%
  • Total online ad spending grew 23% in 2011, to $32bn
  • Digital ads now make up at least 20% of total US advertising
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