Your Newspaper?

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Let me preface this post by saying that it will include little new for those who work in media or those who follow the business side of the media business. This post is written for the vast audience of people who are consumers of newspapers, either in their traditional paper or newer digital forms.

Everyone probably realizes that over the long run paper newspapers face a daunting threat from digital news sources that have vastly lower distribution costs (bytes versus paper) and a growing population of people who would rather get their news online than on paper. What probably isn’t clear to a lot of people is just how fast that change may be coming.

Let me start with a few recent news items. A few days the Newspaper Association of America announced that during the third quarter of 2008, newspaper ad revenues dropped 18% vs. the same quarter last year. And that number includes growing online ads. Print ads alone were down 19% and classified ads were off 31%. That’s compared to a 7% overall decline last year. And that’s a decline that has been accelerating since 2005 — in other words, right through the cash-rich housing bubble years.

On the same day, Cox Newspapers announced it was shuttering its whole Washington Bureau. Gannett just announced it’s cutting 2,000 jobs nationwide which will affect all 85 of its papers, with the exception of USAToday and the Detroit Free Press. And, as I noted earlier today, there’s now some suggestion that Scripps may be preparing to simply shut down the Rocky Mountain News.

The key here is that this is not about the dire economic circumstance the country finds itself in now. This is a secular, not a cyclical trend. The economic collapse is only accelerating it.

In a sense we’re part of this question, since we’re on the other side of the divide. But in journalism as in life, no one is an island. And while I’m confident ‘journalism’ will survive this in the medium run, there’s no getting around the catastrophic dimensions of what’s happening for a whole generation of journalists. There’s a lot I don’t know about newspaper financing. But the year over year revenue declines across the whole industry just seem unsustainable.

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