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 AJR  Letters

From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

The Future of Newspapers   

Thank you so much for Charles Layton's recent piece in AJR "Bridging the Abyss" (June/July). This is exactly the kind of cold water the industry needs thrown in its face right now. For far too long the coverage of the industry crisis has been dominated by well-meaning writers cheering the potential of the online model while ignoring its glaring weaknesses (e.g., Barb Palser's "Free at Last" column in AJR's February/March issue).

While some writers seem to assume that better journalism however defined will carry the day (e.g., Carl Sessions Stepp's "Maybe It Is Time to Panic," (April/May), I sincerely doubt that a better relationship with readers and a jazzy site redesign will address the problems your numbers so well illustrate. Indeed, I note that despite the recent several years' obsessive focus with creating user blogs, hyperlocal content and online commenting, the most recent NAA numbers suggest that the growth rate of online ad revenue (still only 7 percent of total revenue), online audience share and time spent on newspaper Web sites have all slowed.

I sadly agree that the likelihood is that many papers my own guess is about 40 percent will fold in the next five to 10 years. I only hope that the survivors take analyses like yours to heart and begin embracing much more radical solutions, including unpopular new ideas like partnering with ISPs to make our content a valuable (and exclusive) feature for their subscribers, using new technologies like attributor.com to track and protect our content from parasitical aggregators such as The Huffington Post, which often reprint, rather than merely link to, newspaper articles, and perhaps to even consider charging for some of our more popular features.

I don't know if any of those ideas will work; I do know that I want to see them seriously discussed by industry leaders and those who cover them. Layton's article, with any luck, will provide a much-needed boot to the industry's backside, and I thank him for his hard work.

Matthew B. Stannard

Knight Fellow

Stanford University

Palo Alto, California

* * *

What a conversation starter you have in "Bridging the Abyss" a smart piece with strong, fresh data that connects lots of dots and forms a line in an all too clear direction (unfortunately). I've read the piece twice now and called it to the attention of at least a dozen others.

My compliments, and many thanks.

Paul Colford

Director of Media Relations

The Associated Press

New York, New York

I read your article in the latest AJR with great interest because I am a longtime gloom-and-doomer for our business myself. But after rereading it several times, I kept coming to the same conclusion and it kind of scares me because it's so out of character: Are you sure that AJR's, Potts' and Alpert's long-term forecasts of print revenue declines aren't overly pessimistic?

The reason I ask is that all of them, in one way or another, appeared to be taking the last two years' worth of print declines and extrapolating them over the next five or 10 years. You used Washington Post figures, whereas Potts and Alpert used national industry figures from different periods, which is what made the third guy's figures more pessimistic than Potts'.

But the 2007 declines were caused not just by the migration of ads to the Internet but also by a sharp collapse in real estate advertising because of the housing crash. The 2008 declines are being caused not just by the Internet but also by a severe economic slowdown if not outright recession.

Even if you assume for the future that the print ads lost to the 2007 real estate crash and the 2008 recession don't come back, does that mean we can realistically assume that the declines will continue at their current pace?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the Sunday real estate sections will become fat again and the salad days will return. I'm just questioning whether they'll keep getting worse at the same absurd pace that has occurred in 2007 and 2008.

I don't doubt the predictions that some newspapers won't survive this whole print-to-online thing. I just wonder how bad the outcome will really be.

I was always taught, for what that's worth, that it is not a good idea to assume that present trends in anything will continue.

Anyway, thanks for provoking me.

Tony Davis

Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Arizona

* * *

Although I've created a similar Excel spreadsheet and essentially draw the same gloomy conclusions that Charles Layton did in "Bridging the Abyss," I do have to say that straight-line projections are pretty much guaranteed to be wrong.

First, current revenue is affected by the current recession, which will end, eventually. You have an episodic, economic business cycle overlaid on the secular trend of the rise of the Internet.

The tiny little problem is that publishers have been stressing the temporary nature of recessions every time but have been failing to appreciate that after the recession ends and advertising picks up again, less of it will be coming back to newspapers in a so-far still accelerating trend. So newspaper market share will keep falling, even as print revenue picks up somewhat.

Of course, as you suggested, the straight-line projection could be wrong in an even more pessimistic way than you've presented! Maybe we've hit a cusp (OK, to use the jargon of the decade, a tipping point), and the losses in subscriptions and ad revenues have only begun to accelerate and, recession or no, revenue will drop even faster!

Michael Odza

Digital Media Manager

SantaFeNewMexican.com

Santa Fe, New Mexico

* * *

I have been reading your magazine off and on for over a decade and wanted to let you know that the June/July issue was the most engaging, honest and powerful issue yet. The pieces on election coverage and war coverage were outstanding and insightful. However, it was Charles Layton's piece on "Bridging the Abyss" that really hit home. Generally, we only hear of isolated numbers, one-sided statistics and gloom-and-doom sound bites about the industry. His article was one of the best I have read at capturing the challenges and examining it from more than one perspective. I would love to see more articles like this in the future.

Mark W. Maguire

Managing Editor

Cobb Life Magazine

Sandy Springs Life/

Dunwoody Life Magazine

Marietta, Georgia

* * *

I read your story "Bridging the Abyss" with great interest. As you can see from my blog (www.whapwhap.com), I'm very pessimistic about the future of newspapers.

The one thing that gives me hope is that costs could drop just as dramatically as total revenue, IF papers abandon print at the earliest possible opportunity. Eliminating newsprint, circulation and production costs could more than offset the loss of revenue.

At least we can hope.

Ken Bilderback

Gaston, Oregon

* * *

Several letters in the June/July issue about Stepp's "Maybe It Is Time to Panic" (April/May) indicate to me that some of your readers have more common sense than the editors. "Torch your Web sites" is a call back to the basics of American print journalism. "Huge disconnect between reader and media" is a nicely turned phrase but is falling on deaf ears.

Why are newspaper revenues shrinking? We are way, way out of balance. Our approval rating is a pathetic 9 percent to 19 percent, according to various sources. Let's worship Barack Obama less and focus more on "informative, entertaining and educational" content. Content, content, content will sell more newspapers, not Internet, colorful chic or shallow politics.

Dennis Lombard

Editor & Publisher

Home Times Family Newspaper

West Palm Beach, Florida