The good, the bad and the really ugly of newspaper publishing

Publishers try to innovate in clever and unique ways

“It’s nice to see that the printed word is still, at least for now, the most powerful medium for reporting on the death of the printed word.”

The Onion, May 2008

Let’s start with the bad news. Arguably no print-industry segment is suffering more from electronic competition, social media platforms and 24-hour TV news programming cycles more than the printed newspaper. Coldset litho has remained the principal technology and in 2016 accounted for 84% of a world market valued by UK-based research firm Smithers-Pira at US$41.7 billion. But newspapers are indeed fighting back in many clever and unique ways. One successful solution includes hybrid litho presses with digital inkjet modules. The inkjet units can print versioned promotions, inserts or coupons – enticing advertisers to remain in that space. Variable-data programming as well as the versioning of editions in specific geographic areas are also being utilized.

In addition, inkjet sales in the newspaper segment, which stood at US$740 million in 2010, will more than triple by 2020. But Smithers-Pira added that digital print is unable on its own to save printed newspapers. What it can do is provide viable new business models for existing and potential advertisers. The bottom line is that newspaper revenue worldwide was worth US$41.7 billion in 2016, as opposed to US$51.4 billion in 2010. Despite this decline, digital equipment is enabling at least some newspapers to stay competitive.

The good news

The good news is that newspapers (and press manufacturers) continue to adapt. On the equipment side, Germany’s Manroland Web Systems remains the largest producer of newspaper presses in the world. Next is US-based Goss International which is responsible for a wide range of web presses. So, it wasn’t surprising that the two merged in August of this year.

Both companies said that the combined firm will benefit from complementary geographic footprints, create extensive synergies, ensure long-term viability, and provide value-oriented solutions. The Contiweb business of Goss International was not included in this transaction. The new company is operating under the name Manroland Goss Web Systems and will be the strongest supplier to web printing companies, including newspapers, worldwide.

The birth of online editions

In 1994, The Halifax Daily News became Canada’s first daily newspaper to launch an online edition. Today, all daily newspapers in Canada and most of the over 1,000 community newspapers have an associated website. Digital readership of online daily newspapers continues to be strong, despite a number of newspapers implementing paid subscription models to access content.

As of 2016, Canada’s daily newspaper circulation (paid and free) stood at 5.2 million copies on an average publishing day, and 31.6 million copies over the course of a week. There were 84 paid dailies in Canada that year and 14 free dailies, for a total of 98 daily newspapers. Digital circulation (paid and non-paid combined) for those papers that included this information in their circulation audits, increased 21% to 8.1 million per week. This 2016 daily newspaper “snapshot” is based on circulation sourced from audit companies (AAM, CMCA, CCAB) or owner-provided data. Also, daily newspapers continue to be strong news brands with about 8 in 10 Canadians reading them every week. In fact, 50% to 60% of Canadians read newspaper content every day, with print as their primary source. All this being said, newspapers continue to face declining revenues as readers use other platforms and sources of content.

Newspaper strategies for survival

It’s early September and I’m reading a copy of the Star Metro Toronto on the way to work, as I normally do. This tabloid publication provides snippets of news along with printed QR codes that you can scan with your iPhone camera or Android app if you want more information – not unlike interactive packaging. So, print is being used to drive eyeballs to thestar.com website. And it works, although newspapers don’t make as much money from digital ads as they do from print ads. I mean, how could anyone resist headlines like: “Novelist who wrote How to Murder Your Husband charged with murdering her husband” or “Boy survives after meat skewer pierces skull.” Now that’s what I call good, old-fashioned journalism!

But newspapers are employing other interesting strategies. One of the most contentious is whether to set up a pay wall (i.e. charge for content). Whether it’s a subscription-based model or a pay-per-article model, the key is how to create value for readers that they’re willing to pay for. One idea is to generate sites or mini-sites where readers only pay for content covering specific areas of interest – such as sports, medicine, politics, etc. Some papers require readers to purchase a paid subscription before accessing any online content, while others have established ‘metered access’ models (i.e.: first 10 articles free, then readers are asked to pay).

Going niche can also work, as readers are finding value in the specific subjects or areas they find most interesting, or that impact them personally. The idea of printed, sectioned news stuffed into one physical newspaper seems to be less valuable, especially to today’s younger readers. I grew up on flipping through printed newspapers, but I’m a stubborn 70-year-old. For me, reading news from a computer screen after working in front of one for six hours, is simply too exhausting. That being said, newspapers and news outlets need to concentrate on what they do best and report on that. Think politico.com, TSN, or The Food Network.

Integrating real-time reporting with social media platforms is another option for newspaper websites. For example, breaking news stories are usually huge traffic generators. But today, when news breaks, it often happens first on Twitter. Some newspapers have integrated Twitter into their websites or news operations, being very careful to avoid repeating content that’s already in a story.

Investing in mobile e-readers or smartphones is another strategy. In fact, news organizations are becoming the fastest growing iPhone app category. One strategy is for news organizations to partner with carriers to automatically include their news app on these phones.

Adding more community news is another option. In Canada, community newspaper readership remains strong. Three quarters of Canadians (73%) in non-urban centres read a community newspaper. This steady readership suggests that community newspapers continue to remain relevant to local residents for news, information and advertising.

Diversifying digital ads is another possibility. Most newspapers sell classified or display (banner) ads online. Yet only 40% of newspapers are devoting significant efforts to selling smart or targeted advertising – the category widely predicted to eventually dominate local markets.

It’s a given that reader feedback is important. But it surprised me that many newspapers still either don’t have this feature on their websites or have various rules as to which stories allow comments and which don’t. Ok, in many cases it’s because the comments are vulgar, but rules for feedback should be clearly spelled out. “The one thing most likely to make the public value newspapers, is for newspapers to value the public,” one expert said.

The bottom line

A profound shift in the newspaper business model, evolving for years, has arrived. Global newspaper circulation revenues are larger than newspaper advertising revenues for the first time this century, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). And newspaper ad revenues are falling nearly everywhere globally, despite circulation revenues remaining relatively stable. A recent WAN-IFRA study summed it up best: “Print used to be one of few traditional marketing channels and the logical branding choice for marketers. This direct relationship of mutual dependence no longer exists. Advertisers now have more than 60 different advertising media channels available to them.”

The really ugly news

I have a shocking revelation! In every study I’ve seen as far back as the 1950s (and having worked as a writer in the Communications Department of the Toronto Star from 1969-1989), people read newspapers primarily to keep them abreast of the news. The balance read them for the advertising information. What they do NOT read newspapers for, is a reporter’s personal opinions – which in those days was strictly reserved for the editorial pages and a few fact-based columnists. That’s all changed now, as many news outlets have abandoned their principles and become blind mouthpieces for left-wing or right-wing opinions or politics. This represents one of the worst traits of our species – tribalism! And it’s absolutely destroying the faith that readers have in objective reporting. For more, see my column on page 8.

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.