It's been an interesting month for me. I've spoken at several newspaper conferences, including a national conference for free papers, another national conference for paid weekly newspapers and a third conference for daily newspapers. At all three, I was approached by publishers asking, "What is the future of our industry?"
That seems to be the question of the day. Lisa Miller, general manager of New Century Press in Rock Rapids, Iowa, made an interesting comment during the Institute of Newspaper Technology last week. She noted that it seemed like every conference she had attended this year, other than the Institute, had focused solely on issues related to online journalism. Lisa added that she keeps hearing that print newspapers will be but gone within the next ten years.
Like many newspaper publishers and managers that I meet, Lisa was concerned about what this meant to her paper. She mentioned her concern that newsprint would no longer be available, thus making it impossible to produce a community newspaper.
Let me share something I said to a conference of daily newspapers in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago. After discussing issues related to online journalism for over an hour with the publishers and ad managers gathered in the room, I asked if I should call it a day and leave it at that or tell the group what I really thought about the current state of daily newspapers. Voices from the audiences called out, "Tell us!"
On the screen behind me appeared the letters "Y2k." I asked the group how many of them remembered the Y2k scare of the late 90s. Every hand in the room went up.
"Do you remember," I asked, "how everybody stored bottled water, food and blankets in their basements because they were sure the end of the world was around the corner?"
The audience nodded in unison.
"I didn't buy water," I told them. "And do you know why?"
I waited for an answer, but the room was silent as everyone anticipated my answer.
"Because I knew it wasn't real. It was something that people believed because we told them it was going to happen. Everyone kept reading in their newspapers and hearing on TV that the end was near. And they believed it."
Heads moved in agreement. Like in a southern church service, I heard a voice say, "That's right."
"Well for the last three years," I continued, "you've been telling your readers that newspapers were dying. That the end was near. And guess what. It took a while, but they finally believed you. And guess what. Your advertisers believed you, too."
For the next few minutes, I shared what I thought about the importance of improving our print products. Now is the time to put more resources into making our newspapers more attractive to our readers. It's time to invest in staff, equipment and training to create a product that's more attractive to our communities.
Our print product is still vital to our communities. I was recently featured in a series of columns and stories in the Knoxville News Sentinel concerning summer travel mishaps with Delta Airlines. For weeks, people would stop me on the street, in restaurants or wherever to tell me they had read about me in the newspaper. I'd take the time to ask, "Did you see it online or in the print edition?"
To the person, the answer was the same, "I read it in the newspaper. I didn't read it online."
Like Y2k, we can convince ourselves that the end is near. And we can create a self fulfilling prophecy that will make that a reality sooner than later.
Matt Yeager, a friend and publisher in West Virginia, told me last week that he didn't understand why everyone thought print newspapers were dying. At his paper, ad revenues are at an all time high. Circulation hasn't dwindled. People are reading the newspaper.
I asked him if he had told his readers that newspapers were dying.
"No," was his response. "They're not dying. Why would I tell them that?"
My thoughts exactly, Matt.
I ended my keynote to the group in Portland by reminding them to create an online product that engaged the reader and advertiser, but to remember that it's the print product that pays the bills. It's the print product that most of our readers turn to for their community news.
The dean of a major school of journalism told me two years ago that he felt all print newspapers would be gone within two years. He was a little surprised when I told him that might be the dumbest thing I'd ever heard.
"Why would you say that?" he asked.
"Because if all the print newspapers die," I said, "I'm starting one. I'll make a fortune."