What will happen when newspapers kill print and go online-only? Most of that print audience will just…disappear
For American daily newspapers, the story of the last decade-plus hasn’t been about mass closures — it’s been about mass shrinkage. The pace at which newspapers are shutting down isn’t much different from what it was in the late 20th century. Instead, just about every daily paper has gotten smaller — smaller newsroom, smaller budgets, smaller print runs, smaller page counts — year after year after year. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts.
But shrinking can only go so far. In the second quarter of 2018, McClatchy’s print advertising revenue dropped 26.4 percent year over year; Gannett was down 19.1 percent, Tronc 18 percent. They’re not making new daily print newspaper subscribers anymore, and existing ones either move to digital or shuffle off this mortal coil daily. There’s no Zeno’s Paradox to prevent newspapers from eventually deciding one one of two courses of action: going online-only or shutting down entirely. Even the most pro-print publishers will tell you that, someday, the “cost of print” and “revenue from print” lines will intersect on an accountant’s projection and it’ll be time to stop the presses for good. The only question is when: Two years? Five? Ten? Thirty?
So one of the questions I’m most interested in for the near- to medium-term future is what will actually happen when print newspapers start to disappear in large numbers, whenever that may be. Will those print readers just become digital readers? Will they spend as much time consuming local journalism on their phones as they do at their breakfast tables? Or will their attention wander as readers’ competitive set widens to, well, everything else the Internet can offer?