As a journalism professor at a community college where the student newspaper is still just that – a paper – people sometimes ask me why we haven’t followed the lead of some other colleges by eliminating our print edition and going all-digital.
The answers to this question are key to understanding how the news business really works, as opposed to how some would like us to think it works. Needless to say, it has a lot to do with money.
What do I mean? Well, a group of people whom I call the digital zealots have been telling everyone for the better part of two decades that newspapers are a relic of a bygone age and should be abandoned.
The way the zealots saw it, the Internet paved the way for a brave new digital world in which all news would be online, and the wasteful, old-school practice of chopping down trees to print news on paper would go the way of the dinosaurs. (The zealots assumed all of this would work out financially because revenue from online advertising was going to be the pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.)
Problem is, things didn’t work out that way. Online advertising turned out to be far less profitable than once hoped, for the simple reason that most people ignore online ads, and thus businesses aren’t willing to pay very much for them. Website paywalls, which the digital zealots used to fiercely criticize, have boosted revenue somewhat. But the net gain has not been enough to offset the loss of print advertising.
For instance, The New York Times recently reported that it has amassed an impressive 1.5 million digital–only subscriptions. But officials also revealed that only about 36 percent of the company’s revenue currently comes from digital advertising. “For all the progress we have made,” the paper said in a statement, “we still have not built a digital business large enough on its own to support a newsroom that can fulfill our ambitions.”
What’s striking about these numbers is the fact that the Times, considered the country’s newspaper of record, has been far more successful in attracting digital subscribers than most other papers. Indeed, most newspaper companies only get about one-quarter of their revenue from digital advertising. Yet even at The New York Times, digital revenue just isn’t enough.
But wait, you say. Aren’t newspapers in decline? The answer is yes. Revenue from circulation and print advertising has been heading south for many years. However, even with those drops, print advertising still constitutes a big chunk of revenue – sometimes 70 percent or more – for many papers.
Which is why, even as I write this in early 2017, most newspapers haven’t yet shut down their printing presses. True, some papers at both the professional and collegiate levels have eliminated or cut back on print. But there are still more than 1,000 newspapers across the U.S. that do print, and the reason why is simple – print still makes money.
Now, will newspapers still be around in 10 or 20 years? Who knows? I certainly don’t have a crystal ball. What I do know is that predictions about the imminent demise of newspapers were – and still are – wildly premature.
All of which brings me back to the Centurion, the student newspaper at the college where I teach. Six times every semester the Centurion’s editors sweat bullets and buckets to lay out the paper and then rush the pages to the printer. It’s often a real pain in the butt.
But the editors also get a lot of satisfaction for their hard work. There’ a palpable sense of excitement in the newsroom when 2,000 copies of the paper come back from the printer. And once those copies are distributed across the campus, you can actually see students perusing the latest issue.
The Centurion does, of course, have a website, but running that doesn’t offer the same thrills. Watching someone scan the news on a smartphone just isn’t the same as seeing a reader poring over a newspaper.
As for the finances, the Centurion spends thousands of dollars every semester on printing costs. But since we started working with a company called MediaMate (shameless plug alert) that specializes in advertising for college newspapers, we’ve actually managed to turn a profit. Indeed, the Centurion is now entirely self-supporting.
But the most important reason for continuing to print the Centurion lies beyond the campus. Some 1,300 newspapers are printed in large cities and small towns across the country. Those papers will, for the foreseeable future, need staffers who have the layout and design skills associated with print. Students from our college paper will have those skills; students at all-digital publications won’t.
So why do we keep printing our college newspaper? Because we’re doing what we should be doing for our students – preparing them for the real world.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons