Death to Print Journalism?


In the “here and now” of the so-called Digital Age, are physical newspapers facing impending demise? (JAN ZUPPINGER VIA FLICKR)


Every new technological feat or milestone seems to herald the death of whatever came before it. To some, it would seem that print journalism is no exception. The shift to a completely digital news platform seems like the obvious next step to members of the general news-consuming population. We even think we see airtight evidence of this in the number of print journalist jobs dying and the decreasing circulation rates of print newspapers―both red flags that signal what seems to be the slow death of print journalism. As this happens, though, the importance of journalism is becoming more and more evident. While some number trends suggest print journalism’s death, others suggest its immortality and vitality as that which binds all journalism together.

The supposed decline of print journalism lies in the creation of other forms of media. This started with radio as early as the 1920s, with BBC News hosting its first radio broadcast in 1922. As televisions exploded in popularity and magnetized their viewers, our daily intake of news came more and more from television, taking some of the power out of print journalism. In the last 20 years, we have seen the same sort of flux with the emergence of the internet as a news platform. Online-only publications such as BuzzFeed and BBC News—which has no printed publication but does have TV and radio stations—prove that the model can be successful. It only seems natural: move the way the people are moving. Streamline the experience by focusing all energy on digital consumption of information and entertainment.

There is no question that print journalism has suffered massive blows. But is it on its way to death? To unimportance? Even those who helped pioneer digital journalism say the answer is no. Roger Fidler, former head of new media for Knight Ridder, advocated for online journalism before the existence of the internet. In the 1980s, Fidler was all for complete digitization, even creating a prototype design for an electronic tablet on which to read news.

However, even Fidler doubts the replacement of print. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Fidler said, “I have come to realize that replicating print in a digital device is much more difficult than what anybody, including me, imagined.” Newspapers and the companies that own them are willing to throw money at their digital publications, with little to no reward. Digital ad revenue in newspapers went up $2 billion from 2004 to 2014, but print ad revenue went down from $46.7 billion in 2004 to $16.4 billion in 2014. This $28 billion net loss is attributable to ad space above all else. Print ad space is limited, driving the prices of print ads up. Meanwhile, online ad space is infinite, which lowers the price astronomically, decreases competition and increases the scramble for more content on which to place more ads.

Beyond ad revenue alone, there are plenty of other figures that suggest print journalism is far from dead. Data collected by a research firm owned by Nielsen showed that printed publications are at circulation rates three times higher than their *0 counterparts. Other studies constantly show that people in general prefer to read the newspaper than to get their news solely from online sources. Even among millennials, about 20 percent get news from a printed publication within a given week, while only eight percent get it digitally.

We must inevitably discuss the issue of quality in journalism, also. As money goes down the drain, news companies are forced to create new sources of revenue. Instead of reporting on what is important and current, news companies may opt to cover what they know will increase their popularity, the readership of a piece and therefore, their revenue. This leads to an eventual slack in the quality standard of journalism. This works fine if a company’s only goal is to deliver likeable, “clickable” content: BuzzFeed’s model is fantastic because they unabashedly focus on what people like. But when real publications try to pick and choose BuzzFeedian principles to apply to their journalism to increase revenue, the model falls to pieces. There is a disconnect between true journalism and popularity. What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.

None of this is to suggest that print journalism is in decline. It is true that newspaper readership numbers have dropped off in the last 20 years. However, print news companies still do important work for reporting the world over, without which other news institutions would not succeed. News companies are throwing their money into wishing wells on the promise that digital journalism is the future of all news, with no exceptions, which is wishful thinking at best, destructive at worst. News companies need to figure out how to reconcile the ever-revenue-garnering print with the apparent progress offered by online publication. This is not a world in which neither can live while the other survives.