When I was in London last week, I saw just how connected the populace was in the teeming, multi-cultural city. Everywhere I walked, people were listening to iPods or talking on cell phones or texting their friends. Even San Francisco, where I live, doesn’t measure up to the way Londoners are plugged in.
But when I went down to ride on the Underground, I’d say about 50% to 60% of the people on board the subway had a newspaper in hand — usually the free Metro paper. There was a kind of newspaper etiquette where you put the paper on the little shelf behind the seats so that the next person could pick it up to read. And the people reading the paper were young, old, women, men — just about everyone.
There were people here and there who were reading mobile devices, mainly sending messages, but they didn’t add up to the newspaper readers. So as I ponder the possible death of print newspapers, I wonder whether all these situations where having a convenient — usually free — newspaper will ever change. Reading on a subway. Reading at a cafe. Reading on the, uh, throne.
And when I asked you the question of the week — are print newspapers going to die? — you largely said “no” for various reasons. But before I get to your answers, a timely report just came out from the Audit Bureau of Circulations showing that overall newspaper circulation in the U.S. is down 2.6% in the six-month period ending March 31.
Deep circulation drops came at the San Francisco Chronicle (15.6%) and Boston Globe (8.5%), while USA Today and the Chicago Tribune were both up almost 1% in the period. But even though readership continues to drop, most of you were convinced it wouldn’t drop down to zero. Blogger and freelance journalist Bryan Person says that talk of the imminent death of papers has been around for awhile, but that newspapers continue to reinvent themselves to survive.
“A print paper, I think, can still thrive with deep investigative reports, feature stories, breathtaking photography, etc.,” Person writes. “There will remain a role for print journalistm to play in our lives — but that role will be an ever-changing one…As much as I consume news online, there’s still something entirely compelling about flipping through the print version of my local newspaper — the Boston Globe in my case — particularly on Sundays. No computer screen can quite match the experience of spreading the Sunday newspaper all over the table or couch, and consuming it section by section.
“But it’s also true that the onus is on the Globe to continue to put out content in its print editions that includes something new for me to read. We’ll see, but I just can’t imagine the print newspaper will die while I am alive.”
Then there’s the argument that no new medium has replaced an old one — something that Rick Violette and blogger Hasan Diwan both mentioned.
“It’s like television being the death of radio, or the cell phone being the death of home phones,” Violette wrote. “Sure there will be a definite shift in the medium, but each medium has its benefits and serves different purposes.”
Perhaps the circulation problems are with large metro regional newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News (which is being sold in Knight Ridder’s explosion) — with national papers like USA Today and the New York Times surviving and small papers remaining vital to communities where people are less connected in rural areas.
“There are far too many local, small town papers that would not successfully survive a transition to 100% online,” said Ben, who writes for the Tech Savvy Educator blog. “Most national and international news that I need can be read online, but I must purchase a subscription to my local paper in order to get local news.
“Despite the growth of broadband Internet access, there are still several hundreds of communities around the nation that rely on dial-up Internet acccess. Gathering news is something that should be quick and immediate, and the last time I checked opening up the paper is a lot faster for most folks than dialing up and searching through all the pages of their local papers’ site.”
But not everyone thought newspapers would live on for the foreseeable future. Jon Henshaw, who develops websites, is hopeful that that most people will be getting their news from computers and new e-paper readers in a few years.
“I think with the onset of e-ink, which can be seen in two different readers that are going to be released within the next 6-12 months, all news will be going digital,” wrote Henshaw. “We’re already seeing the shift towards online-only news. For example, one of the most well respected business news outlets in Nashville, the Nashville Post, decided to go 100% digital.”
And another person, Krishna, backed up Henshaw’s hope for e-paper and e-ink — technologies that would allow you to view digital displays in a paper-like form.
“If 3-feet-by-4-feet light/solar powered foldable e-paper with full color depth cost less than $5 and was durable for a year then present newspapers will die and multiple newspaper companies will be born to deliver news to people’s e-paper [devices],” he wrote.
It’s true that e-ink is a promising technology that could shift our habits away from dead trees and toward a flexible, reusable format. However, judging by the way new technologies have to work out bugs and incompatibility issues, these devices still might not be widespread for years or decades.
What do you think? Are newspapers going to remain important for in-depth investigative reports and reading convenience, or will digital delivery pre-empt them in the near future?
[Photo of newspaper comics by Glynnis Ritchie]