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Transforming American Newspapers (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Violating the Principle of Supply & Demand

If the major reason for the American daily newspaper industry’s demise were its stories contained too many dangling participles, then the industry could more easily comprehend its situation than instead hearing that the reason was it had violated the Principle of Supply & Demand.

The understanding of economics, particularly media economics, has never been its strong suit, except if the topic is how many tons of newsprint to buy, how many points a major stock market dropped, or how cut expenses to match revenues. Most newspaper publishers, editors, or journalists tends to equate economics as solely the science of government financial policy, household spending, Wall Street speculation, and petroleum pricing. They don’t understand or have forgotten that a major branch of it is the behavioral science of Microeconomics – the study of how individuals make decisions to allocate their time and activities.

The main paradigm of microeconomics is known as rational choice theory or rational action theory, which states that individuals choose the best action according to their preferences and what constraints of supply, demand, time, and access face them. In it now lays the demise of American daily newspapers as we know them.

How did the American daily newspaper industry violate the Principle of Supply & Demand by failing to adapt the industry’s core product to a radical change in consumers’ supply of news and information during the past 35 years? To understand how, both start and end at the roots of the newspaper industry.

Start in the European city of Strasbourg during 1605 when the world’s first newspaper began publication. It used a technology developed there 164 years earlier by the metalworker Johannes Gutenberg, who had invented a device for producing innumerable copies of the same text. (Please keep that concept in mind, because it’s now moldering the newspaper industry). The Supply & Demand equation for accessing daily changing information was then quite the opposite it is today: Consumers had little or no supply of daily news until the daily newspaper. So to produce newspapers, this adaption of Gutenberg’s book printing technology spread quickly worldwide.

Some modern critics of newspapers say the industry is leaden and ‘doesn’t think outside the box.’ They probably don’t realize the historical irony that underlay their criticisms. The core of Gutenberg’s technology was a box containing lead type whose impressions could print innumerable copies of the same thing. In that core is the inherent limitation that it produces the same edition for everyone. Although in the 19th Century steam and later electrical power speeded Gutenberg’s technology and the introduction of offset lithography during the middle of the 20th Century eliminated its use of lead, the analog technology used to produce today’s daily newspapers is still Gutenberg’s. Indeed, today’s analog printing technology still has the same limitation that it had in Gutenberg’s days – it produces the same edition for everyone.

That technological limitation delineated the newspaper industry’s editorial and advertising practices during the past four centuries. Because each edition had a finite number of pages and was printed by analog technology had to produce the same for everyone at once, newspaper editors had to select stories according to two criteria:

Continue reading Transforming American Newspapers (Part 2)

Transforming American Newspapers (Part 1)

Ignorance isn’t bliss to the dying. Witness the pathos of American daily newspaper companies. Most have finally begun to realize that the deterioration of their businesses isn’t cyclical but grave. Yet few, if any, understand why. Almost all grasp for the reasons.

Some attribute their grave condition to advertisers suddenly switching huge portions of spending from print to online – an excuse that ignores more than 30 years of declines in those newspapers’ printed editions’ circulations and readerships. Some others attribute their deterioration to not having transplanted their content into online quickly enough -an excuse that ignores not only the dozen years they’ve spent transplanting it but how their online editions are now read even less frequently and less thoroughly than their printed editions.

Most of the print newspaper experts who diagnose these companies’ condition still prescribe stale nostrums such as more consumer focus groups, subscription price incentives, more stylish typography, or shorter stories. Meanwhile, most of the experts who diagnose these companies’ Web sites prescribe balms and accessories such as giving blogs to reporters, adding video, or having the readers themselves report the stories. American daily newspaper companies have long been too financially impatient to submit themselves to anything but ostensibly quick cures and they’ve even longer been too conceptually myopic to perceive the real reasons for their declines.

I’ll declare the real reasons. There are but two and neither has anything to do with multimedia, ‘convergence’, blogs, ‘Web 2.0’, ‘citizen journalism,’ or any ancillary topics you may have heard presented at New Media conferences this millennium.

Nor is either of the real reasons advertisers’ abandonment of printed newspapers. Their abandonment is a symptom, not the reason for the decline. Contrary to myopia of many newspaper executives, advertisers aren’t newspapers’ primary customers. Although advertising revenues may be sunshine for newspaper executives, the roots of their business are readers. A newspaper with readers will attract advertisers but a newspaper without readers will not. Readers ultimately support and sustain the newspaper business.

To understand the real reasons why the American daily newspaper industry is dying, first understand why more and more Americans are no longer reading daily papers and how their abandonment of newspapers has been wrought by changes in their own media economics. Also comprehend why the epicenter of the newspaper industry’s problems in post-Industrial countries is America and exactly how grave the situation is there.

Continue reading Transforming American Newspapers (Part 1)