What if everything you’d heard about the death of newspapers was wrong? What if the future of news wasn’t online?
Granted, those are decidedly unpopular views. Just about everyone who prognosticates about the news business these days seems to echo the common wisdom that print journalism is on life support, to be replaced, eventually, by all things digital.
But Dr. Iris Chyi, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is a (nearly) lone voice in the wilderness who believes that newspapers have some life in them yet. Which is good because, she adds ominously, there simply is no successful business model for online-only news.
“Some people think I’m a dinosaur,” Chyi admits. “But look at the numbers. If the top 50 papers can’t make a success of online news after more than 20 years, then it’s probably not a realistic idea.”
Chyi argues that “print is dead” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for newspaper companies, who poured millions of dollars into their online offerings only to get little in return.
Yet Chyi’s research has found that print readers have in recent years continued to pay for their favorite papers, despite substantial subscription price hikes.
Chyi and a colleague studied the price of 25 widely-circulated U.S. newspapers in 2008, 2012, and 2016. They found that seven-day home delivery price more than doubled, and weekday single-copy price tripled. “Print subscribers are paying on average $293 more to have the same newspaper delivered to their doorstep,” they noted.
And yet, “despite the increase in price, about two-thirds of print readers remained loyal to a product that has become much more expensive and is considered dying by many.”
In her book “Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggle Toward Inferiority,” Chyi used a food metaphor to explain the dilemma. Publishers, giddy about the promise of online news, believed it was a superior product, like steak. Readers on the other hand, saw online news as inferior – more like Ramen noodles.
Chyi’s advice for newspaper publishers? Continue serving steak.
“Papers should treat their print product as an asset instead of a burden,” Chyi says. “If you believe something is dying you’re not going to do much to make it work. Newspapers executives need to realize the importance of the print product before they reach the point of no return.”
Of course, newspaper circulation continues its long and steady decline, a fact Chyi understands all too well. The days of 20 percent profit margins in the industry are clearly over.
But Chyi says there is no reason newspapers can’t continue to reap smaller profit margins, ones more typical of most Fortune 500 companies.
Chyi says it’s important for newspapers to make print work, because the outlook on the digital side is by and large grim. Online advertising pays far less than its print counterpart, leading to the oft-repeated observation that newspapers are “trading analog dollars for digital dimes.”
The larger issue is that online giants Google, Facebook and Amazon gobble up some 70 percent of all online ad revenue. This makes it tough going not just for newspaper websites but even for online-only sites as well, some of which, like their print counterparts, have been forced to downsize. “BuzzFeed, HuffPost latest to suffer layoffs in faltering digital-news economy” blared a recent headline in the Chicago Tribune.
While news website paywalls have proven relatively successful for prestige papers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, they haven’t worked as well for regional and local publications.
Chyi said a recent study of the country’s top 39 papers found that the median number of digital subscribers was a paltry 5,556.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that even in 2019, more than two decades after the advent of the Internet, most newspaper companies – including the Times – still reap the majority of their profits not from online news but from print.
“There’s no such thing as an all-digital future for papers,” Chyi says. “Yes, you have declines in circulation and ad revenue. Despite that, print is still a lot stronger than the digital product.”