Print versus digital: Will they meet in the middle?

Printing press in Vermont, Robert N. Dennis Collection, Wikimedia Commons

By Ellen Clegg

Writing for The Atlantic in 2009, Michael Hirschorn asked a burning question about the future of The New York Times: “Can America’s paper of record survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism?”

Times indeed were tough for the publicly traded Gray Lady, which was trying to weather a harrowing economic recession, a crippling credit crunch and significant drops in advertising revenue and circulation. As Hirschorn wrote at the time: “As of December [2008], its stock had fallen so far that the entire company could theoretically be had for about $1 billion. The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without the Times. Perhaps we should start.”

Downsizing followed. Pieces of the assembled Times Company empire were sold off, including The Boston Globe and the Times Company’s share of the Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox.

But Hirschorn’s prediction was premature. The Times has become a bellwether in the industry as it navigates the transition from print to digital, instituting a paywall in 2011 for digital readers and launching a clutch of newsletters and standalone digital products like the Cooking and Games apps. Yet the Times still reports a print circulation for Sunday of 860,364, according to the Alliance for Audited Media report on the total combined average for the six months ending March 31, 2021. That’s down, but it’s not insignificant. Closer to home, my collaborator Dan Kennedy reported in September that the Globe’s “strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off.”

Kennedy cites recent figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. The Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482 for the six-month period that ended in the first quarter of this year. That’s up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. The Globe’s paid Sunday circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%. It’s clear that print circulation is still sliding and paid digital subscriptions are mission critical. As Kennedy reports:

“Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

These figures demonstrate that the existential question about the future of newsprint is still smoldering. Recently, Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, posited that print and digital publishing might ultimately “meet somewhere in the middle,” with 24/7 digital news streams all week long and a Sunday-only print bundle. The former Times chief executive, Mark Thompson, gave his own frank assessment during an exit interview when he stepped down in August 2020. As Sarah Scire of Nieman Lab reported, Thompson told interviewers: “I believe the Times will definitely be printed for another 10 years and quite possibly another 15 years — maybe even slightly more than that. I would be very surprised if it’s printed in 20 years’ time.”

Nancy Lane, the chief executive of the Local Media Association, an industry group, told Jacob that “we know there are markets where big metro dailies only publish a few days a week, so they’re not far off from becoming a weekly.” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was a pioneer among larger regional newspapers, moving print to Sunday only and handing out iPads to subscribers so they can read a digital replica edition. The iPad experiment has proven popular, publisher Walter Hussman Jr. told Jacob, so this month, he’s expanding it to another newspaper he owns, the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee. “We’re going to do what the customers want,” Hussman said.

Other legacy newspapers are following suit, according to the tally by Medill. The Tampa Bay Times publishes a print edition on Sunday and Wednesday. The McClatchy chain, which lays claim to 65 million readers in 30 markets, stopped printing Saturday papers at all of its outlets. The Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, a Lee Enterprises paper, dropped its Monday and Tuesday print editions last year, Jacob reports, noting “that made Wyoming the first state with no seven-days-a-week local newspapers.”

Predictions about the demise of print make a nice headline for pundits (writing primarily on digital platforms, it should be noted.) Yet reading habits differ from market to market, and across audience demographics, so the end of any single newsroom’s press run is likely to vary widely. But, as Jacob writes, one thing is clear: “The daily print habit is eroding.”

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