What will teeth extraction in the Old West and printing daily newspapers have in common in a few years? The public will see them both as archaic and unnecessary, according to media analyst Ken Doctor.
"A lot of people, especially young people, will be amazed that trees were actually cut down to produce a daily newspaper," he says.
The May 24 announcement that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times-Picayune, New Orleans's only daily newspaper, will publish just three times a week starting in September is a sign of the inevitability of newspapers' move toward digital publication, Doctor says.
The paper's owner, the Newhouse family-owned Advance Publications, also plans to reduce print production to three times per week at its three Alabama daily newspapers. It wouldn't be a surprise if Newhouse ― which in 2009 converted its Ann Arbor News in Michigan into a digitally focused news outlet with print versions twice a week ― reduced the frequency of print publication at more of its newspapers, Doctor says.
Randy Siegel, Advance's president of local digital strategy, says, "The people who think we have a one-size-fits-all plan don't understand what we're doing." Advance assesses each market individually and right now has no specific plans to reduce print publishing at its other papers, Siegel says. "We're always reviewing our operations and thinking about the future of our local companies. And our local executives in each one of our markets are carefully studying local conditions and working on strategies to respond to the changing economic circumstances in this increasingly digital environment."
Newspapers everywhere are now in what Doctor calls the "Digital Decade."
"The '90s was still a time when we thought, 'print heavy, some digital,'" Doctor says. "By the end of this decade, it will be 'digital heavy, a little print.'"
It all comes down to the numbers. With papers suffering declines in both circulation and advertising revenue, publishers are under great pressure to boost profits, says media analyst John Morton. And one choice is to cut out days that don't bring in many advertising dollars.
"It's a fact that most newspapers don't make money every day," says Morton, who writes a column about newspaper economics for AJR. "They tend to lose money on Mondays and Tuesdays, and some lose money on Thursdays and Saturdays, depending on the market. So what's good financially, although it's very bad for journalism, is not to publish on those days. It's sad, but I'm afraid we'll see a lot more of this going forward."
Print newspapers have been restructuring or disappearing around the country for several years. In 2009, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News cut back on home delivery and began offering smaller print versions at stores and newsstands several times per week. Newhouse takes a similar approach at four of its Michigan dailies.
Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed in 2009. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut down its print operation that same year and became an online-only entity.
Those developments marked "the beginning of the end of the seven-day weekly," says Doctor, author of "Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get." "I think now we're going to see a movement." By 2015, he thinks many more papers will have gone the way of the Times-Picayune. "Newspaper companies tend to move as a herd," he says.
For example, after the success of the New York Times' decision to start charging for digital content in 2011― the paper reported 454,000 digital subscribers as of this March – other news organizations are following suit. Gannett, which owns more than 80 daily newspapers, will roll out similar plans for all of its papers except USA Today.
The effectiveness of the Times-Picayune's reduced print model should start to become clear in 12 to 18 months, Doctor says. "What is very important here is the metrics of it," he says. "We need to see some data that shows us that this can work."
Last month, the Christian Science Monitor, which three years ago went from publishing five days a week to publishing a weekly newsmagazine with a heavy Web focus, reported that it had experienced its best fiscal year in nearly 50 years.
Most of the 38 news executives surveyed in a Pew Research Center report released in March predicted that, in five years or so, daily papers would be printed less frequently, maybe just on Sunday.
But readers in New Orleans are not ready to accept this option for their city. Hundreds of people rallied this week against the diminished publication schedule, although it's unlikely the public outcry will change Newhouse's mind.
New Orleans has a much stronger newspaper reading habit than most places and will be affected by reduced printing, Morton says. "This is going to diminish the connection between the paper and the reading public," he says. "Just how serious those consequences are, we don't know. But there's sure to be consequences."
Publishers generally don't want to disrupt the habits of their readers, says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. They are reluctant to tell readers that they only need the product a few days a week because of the potential resulting loss of consumers, he says.
Reducing print publishing is harder to do in competitive news markets like Boston or Washington, D.C., in which papers are up against print rivals, strong news television stations, Web sites and other places the public can turn to for news, Edmonds says. "That's one of the dangers of not being daily. People are going to want the news. They may go to the paper's Web site, but they may go other places, too."
And not everyone is able to easily go online to get information. About a third of Americans do not have high-speed Internet access at home, according to a 2010 Federal Communications Commission report. About two-thirds of people over the age of 65 lack high-speed Internet access in their homes, the report says. Elderly people lacking knowledge about or access to the Internet would have to wait for print editions of the paper to read obituaries, for example, Edmonds says.
While high-speed adoption rates in most metropolitan areas are around 60 percent to 80 percent, rates in the New Orleans area stand at a much lower 40 percent to 60 percent, according to an investigation using 2010 data by American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, the Center for Public Integrity and The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news organization.
The prevalence of high-speed Internet access nationwide has likely increased within the past two years, but – whether because of physical or financial limitations – it still hasn't reached everyone.
And as is apparent in New Orleans, reduced printing could anger devoted print readers, media consultant Alan Mutter said in an e-mail interview. "In fact, there is a danger that the interruption of the daily print habit could drive even more readers to the digital media, accelerating the reduction of circulation and the effectiveness of newspapers as an advertising medium."
But publishing in print only occasionally or not at all does not necessarily mean news organizations will become less valuable, especially if they use their savings from cutting costs to add reporting firepower, Mutter says.
"If publishers invest aggressively in new digital products to attract the younger audiences that do not tend to consume print, then they could reinvigorate their franchises ― enabling those healthy organizations to continue to be the vigorous civic watchdogs we would like to see," says Mutter, a former newspaper editor who writes the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur. "If publishers don't make the investment ― or fail to create successful products ― then the quantity and quality of local coverage will diminish."
In a 2008 AJR story, longtime journalist Philip Meyer wrote, "The newspapers that survive will probably do so with some kind of hybrid content: analysis, interpretation and investigative reporting in a print product that appears less than daily, combined with constant updating and reader interaction on the Web."
A Web-first philosophy seems to be where papers are headed now. But Meyer, author of "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age," agrees with Mutter that printing less than daily does not have to mark the end of valuable print reporting and that the quality of the content is what matters most.
"A weekly can do investigative work as well as a daily," Meyer says. "So I don't see anything wrong with a less than daily paper."
Newspapers can survive if they can find the right niche, he says, and advertisers will be interested in appealing to those niches.
The Internet has made it more crucial for newspapers to embrace specialization. It is now more efficient to target a specific audience than to use the "smorgasbord model" of trying to appeal to everyone, Meyer says.
"Newspapers have to stop trying to give a little satisfaction to a large audience and now give large satisfaction to a smaller audience," he says.
Ultimately, experimentation ― as in cutting back on print publishing in New Orleans and home delivery in Detroit ― will be the key to seeing what works and what doesn't in saving newspapers, Meyer says.
"I'm glad those two experiments are underway, because one of them is going to work better than the other, and it gives us a chance to see," says Meyer, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is on the editorial advisory board of Patch, AOL's collection of hyperlocal news sites.
"That's why I cheer when papers are doing experiments I don't think will work, because I could very well be wrong," Meyer says. "I'm careful not to criticize anything odd that papers do, because what we need is more papers doing dangerous things."
This story has been updated to include Randy Siegel's comments.