You may have heard yesterday about the decision by Advance Communications to stop printing three of Alabama’s newspapers daily. Instead, The Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register will print on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Their primary vehicle for delivering the news will be AL.com, Advance’s web site combining its Alabama media. Advance will also cut print publication of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to three times a week, with most news going to NOLA.com.
These cuts were more personal to me than previous ones. I spent the first 10 years of my career with The Birmingham News, and many of the reporters and editors there are friends.
You may be aware that these changes follow the pattern of Advance/Newhouse’s changes in Michigan in 2009, which include ceasing print entirely in Ann Arbor and moving the Flint Journal, Bay City Times and Saginaw News to a mostly-online model with print editions just three days a week.
It’s important to note that Advance, which is owned by the Newhouse family, is the richest and most stable media organization in the country. I expect them to be a bellwether.
To complicate this further, a number of papers are continuing to print daily editions for newsstand distribution only, but ceasing to deliver them to homes.
The pain is just starting. The Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California predicts that within five years, only four papers will still be printing daily: The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
I expect this trend to accelerate from here for three reasons:
1. By following its Michigan model in Alabama and Louisiana, Advance is telegraphing to other publishers that its strategy is working. That will lead others to follow Advance’s example.
2. A number of newspapers are in various stages of bankruptcy. Notably, Tribune Co. — owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, WGN in in Chicago, among others — is hoping to learn in June whether it can emerge from Chapter 11. These are shedding the debt from their print operations, and while most will continue to print (at least some of the time), they will introduce wrinkles that continue to de-emphasize print in favor of digital. Some will print only a few days a week. Others will print but eliminate home delivery, severely reducing the audience for print ads.
3. Newspapers are losing $27 in print advertising for every $1 they gain in digital. Up until now, the print revenues have dwarfed online revenues, so they’ve been milking the cash cow for several years. Now, that cow is pretty dry, and they’re facing the reality that the costs are on the print side. They’re not going to keep the costs without the revenues.
Here’s a list of metropolitan dailies that have failed since 2007, according to the web site, NewspaperDeathWatch.com:
Rocky Mountain News
King County Journal
Union City Register-Tribune
Halifax Daily News
South Idaho Press
San Juan Star