Arment Dietrich

Newspapers Aren’t Quite Dead Yet

By: Arment Dietrich | November 20, 2013 | 


By Clay Morgan

I came out of publishing and tend to be a bit bullish on print in general, and newspapers in particular.

These days, it is easy to ignore newspapers, and there are plenty of signs that the end is near, except for the fact that those pesky things keep hanging in there.

Public relations professionals know this means opportunity by providing newspapers with outstanding content.

However, the unfortunate fact is, unless there’s been a dramatic shift since I left the newspaper industry three weeks ago, most PR professionals are doing it wrong.

Newspapers: Oh the Irony

There is a sad irony in the oft-cited circulation declines. Most newspapers have never had more readers if you combine their print and web readership.

John W. Henry, who recently purchased The Boston Globe, noted this very fact in his letter to readers, titled Why I Bought the Globe.

For example, The Globe has a paid print circulation of just more than 215,000, with Sunday being purchased by more than 360,000 people.

However, that is hardly their reach.

Add to it, with more than five million unique visitors per month, and you have unrivaled penetration in the Boston area.

Now go social. Their main Facebook page has 104,000 “likes” and the main Twitter feed has 257,000 followers. This does not include their brand-specific accounts.

Here’s the rub. These types of numbers play out across the nation at newspapers of all sizes, from weeklies in towns with populations of 4,000, to major metropolitan centers.

The paid print circulation declines hide the incredible depth of newspapers’ reach.

So, Why are They in Financial Trouble?

The simple answer is: Advertising.

For many newspapers, circulation revenue has comprised, during the best of times, only 20 percent of total newspaper revenue. And there are many that had no circulation revenue.

Where I last worked, our daily newspaper, the website, and the monthly magazine were paid products, but we also published four free weekly newspapers with a combined circulation approaching 100,000.

With the implementation of paywalls, some newspapers are actually seeing circulation revenue growth. My own paper saw year-over-year growth in circulation after I started hitting readers up for money to read our online content.

But it is advertising that is the elephant in the room. As the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2013 report indicates, print advertising at newspapers declined more than eight percent – $1.8 billion – in 2012, and digital advertising growth has not overcome print’s lost volumes.

As they say, the print dollars are turning into digital dimes, which are turning into mobile pennies.

Even revenue gains from paywalls and digital marketing services fall short of covering print’s decline at the moment.

And That Means…

Smaller newsrooms.

I’ve been part of the reductions and layoffs, making difficult decisions about who stays and who goes. Related to those decisions are the ones that hurt the newspaper where it matters most. What do you cover and what do you stop covering?

In the 1970s, the American Society of News Editors began conducting a census of newsrooms. By their estimates, this year newsroom population nationally will drop below 40,000 for the first time since the survey began.

During the heyday of the census, newsroom populations were estimated to reach nearly 60,000. The industry is far from dead, and I don’t think it will die, but the declines are very real, and they spell opportunities for you.

What are Newsrooms Doing?

Newsrooms are getting lean and they are getting more aggressive.

When I was with Gannett, we conducted market research to determine a community’s “passion topics.” These are subject areas the community told us were most important. Like other Gannett newsrooms, we reorganized our teams to focus on those passion topics.

At the same time, our reporters became multimedia journalists. Our fairly small newsroom of 15 reporters and two photographers continued to write stories, but they began to post photo galleries and even local video. A reporter is expected to provide all three, publish immediately online, and then push them through social media.

That is Where PR Pros Come In

As I mentioned earlier, most PR pros know this is opportunity, and most are still doing it wrong. They blast news releases and pitch stories with no local angle.

If you can produce easily sharable local content in a turnkey package, you will get lots of exposure for your clients.

When I was at The Daily News Journal, the Middle Tennessee State University communications team was outstanding at this. They wrote and pitched stories in a news style and provided multiple photos with every story. Sometimes they even included video.

Local stories, photos, and occasionally video that could be embedded online meant tremendous success for MTSU, and it essentially gave us the equivalent of another reporter.

For us, the MTSU communications department provided the day-to-day fodder while our MTSU/higher education reporter could focus on more in-depth stories and enterprise pieces.

A win-win situation.

In my opinion, papers aren’t going anywhere. But they need local content, not thinly veiled generalized advertisements submitted under the guise of a news release.

Newspapers and newsrooms will still be around for many years, and with a good local content strategy, you (and your client) can become part of that newsroom.

  • Smart, smart, smart.

  • Yvette Hamlin Pistorio

    Beautiful feel of newsprint!

  • Sean McGinnis

    Neither. Facebook.

  • Todd Lyden Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  • This is great, Clay. As you mentioned, those newspapers that can adapt their storytelling for the digital age are going to be better positioned for survival. I am still blown away by the job the New York Times did with the story of the Tunnel Creek avalanche:
    But I suppose that took a LOT of resources.

  • RobBiesenbach Thanks Rob. Resources really are becoming the problem. As newsrooms shrink, it very challenging to pull a reporter or two off their daily assignments and let them just focus on a single story for days, weeks or months. The thing is, the readership does react positively when you do make that investment.

  • Newsprint is awesome for getting my chimney starter going. <ducks>

  • Oh – fish and chips, too! ClayMorgan

  • @Sean McGinnis How do you sort through the clutter? I like Facebook for keeping up with friends, but I find precious little accurate local news there.

  • @Yvette Hamlin Pistorio Ink in the blood!

  • jasonkonopinski bird cages. litter boxes. Yes Jason, I’ve heard them all. 🙂

  • @Sean McGinnis See, that answer really surprises me. What scale of news are you talking about here: local, regional, national? Like ClayMorgan says below, I see very, very little local news coming through my Newsfeed unless it’s coming directly from one of the media outlets that I’ve “liked” and thus show up.

  • ClayMorgan Heh. 🙂
    All joking aside, our local papers here (all under one parent company) have demonstrated a real commitment to hyperlocal content and a digital first mindset, and it’s definitely diversifying their “readership”. There’s a demographic component to all of this — in more rural areas, trust in the printed newspaper exceeds all other mediums. Fascinating stuff, that.

  • Interesting timing as just today the Chicago Tribune announced layoffs of around 700 – just in time for the holidays. I think your comments on passion topics hits the nail on the head. Local and regional publications will survive by providing what can’t be gotten from the national news sites. Without that niche, in-depth content those local publications will become more white noise again the heavy hitting nationals.

  • dave_link I am a believer that local and niche content is an important piece of the pie.
    The 700 jobs will be spread across the eight daily newspapers including the Tribune and the LA paper. That doesn’t make life any easier.
    I do believe we’ll continue to see these types of actions for a few more years as business models are being completely reset.

  • ClayMorgan dave_link I love hyperlocal. The Patch websites do an outstanding job of covering news I care ab

  • DanielleDeBord2

    There will always be the traditional style readers who want
    to read a newspaper. However, I very much agree that the decline is drastic,
    and the newspaper business is losing a lot of readers. Newspapers need to find
    a niche that they are good at and their readers want to read. Along, with
    finding a niche, newspapers have to stay local. Not only will the newspaper
    cover relevant information for its audience, but locals always stay loyal to
    other locals. The community sticks together. The community will want to back up
    its newspaper business. Larger news sites do not have this type of relationship
    with their readers. It’s a special quality that small newspaper businesses

  • Love this post, ClayMorgan!  I’m a huge fan of newspapers and when I worked in gov’t/politics I read at least 6 print versions a day.  I agree wholeheartedly that focusing on the local news is paramount for the industry’s survival and that it is a tremendous opportunity of PR pros to assist in providing this content.  This post makes me giddy with anticipation to see all the fun you have in mind for AD! 😉

  • I miss my daily newspaper so much. I love the feel of it. The smell of it. The *sound* of it. Back when I was in broadcasting, I would read two, sometimes three papers before the day even got started. Alas, in today’s world, it’s just too easy to crack open the old laptop and stay on top of the news digitally. That said, I’m a firm believer that they serve a purpose – being Canadian, we have huge swaths of this massive country not served by the internet. People need to be able to access news. And I still pickup my local “Beaches” community paper, every week or two. 😉

  • This subject is near and dear to me because we need the 4th estate. There are many reasons the models are broken. But also lessons from some brands that buck this trend (See the Economist)

    When I lived in LA from 92-2008 I watched the decline of LA times the layoff rounds etc. Back before the web when they had a captive audience for news and we paid for all of a paper vs the sections we liked they got fat and lazy. No newspaper knew how many page views they had pre-Web. I only read Sports, Business and Comics. The rest of the paper I barely touched. All those ads in the rest of the paper I paid for. Now I only view the content I want. I also read most news on mobile apps that have crappy teeny banner ads.
    While I agree with less journalists good PR folks can help them with stories and content. But the online format sucks. Newspapers should put out a daily and tomorrow have a new paper with the old stories gone. Talk about an incentive to read today! Same for mobile apps. They all suck. Except the Economist (granted they are a weekly). 
    Scarcity is what creates value. This Blog technically uses it but ginidietrich probably is unaware of of how. It’s the comments. There is a lively debate each day on the posts of the day. Yesterday’s posts? Not so much. If you miss a post and you are an active part of the community, you miss out. So you have to be there then and now or be square.
    But one problem they have is the overabundance of choices. I read the NY Daily News for Sports. LA Times. Washington Post. Huffington Post. NPR. BBC. Guardian. 90% on the mobile apps. Hard to do great journalism without the fat revenues. That is why we have so much reality TV shows. And yes that is your point with the PR help. But my economist app has separate issues and as I slide each article I get full page print ads sprinkled. Just like a real paper! No one does that. 
    and Facebook and Yahoo are just like print. They are just static ad networks selling impressions. So papers have to think about that. Maybe have them show up in between articles.

  • I love my newspaper – and magazines too. I love having them in my hands, being able to dog-ear pages to go back and read, rip out recipes or good articles, and getting the ink all over my hands. I still have a newspaper subscription and a couple of magazines too , and that won’t change until they stop delivering it to me every day!  And I agree, local news is a big piece of that pie.

  • Bravo Mr. Morgan! I am a PR pro with 15+ years experience and guardian of the ‘ole press release. Printed press is a formidable force and my favorite market to which I pitch. I attended panel full of press a few months ago fielding questions on how to get your story printed. My favorite on the panel was Jed Morey ( of Long Island Press (  I showed up with most of your knowledge intuitively lodged in my brain, however, journalists like you and Jed underscore the need for PR pros to stay on top of their game and bring dignity to our respective professions by pitching the right way: consideration, authenticity and honor. Long live quality journalism and PR peeps who support your charge.

  • RobBiesenbach ClayMorgan dave_link Yes, Rob, Patch is losing money at quite a few of its sites and are cutting deep. They’re still betting they can be something, though.

  • Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich Papers have a lot of work to do on the business model and on how to present ads.
    At my last paper, the most surprising digital feature was the e-edition – a digital replica of the print paper. It had thousands of subscribers – enough that we created a second “print edition” app.
    The challenge is that the traditional print business models are indeed broken. But the thing is the new digital models don’t always work so well either – especially in a more locally focused publication. 
    And as for choices, that is why a paper must find its niche and provide content that nobody else does. Somewhere in there is a balance – a daily probably shouldn’t ignore the Superbowl, but maybe it should focus more on the Pop Warner league championships?

  • danielleserrano

    DanielleDeBord2 I definitely agree.  I always find myself questioning, too, if people are not reading the newspaper at all or if they are just reading it online.  I do not think newspapers are dead, at all but I feel like they may be inching toward the end of their life cycle.  I think that if they find a niche, soon, they may have a chance at lasting.

  • This is part of the reason I hired you and can’t wait to see what you do with our content distribution and monetization! For PR pros. the lesson can’t be told enough. Even though, like urbansiren describes, the industry associations bring in a panel of journalists at least once a year and there are a gazillion blog posts written on the topic, the fact remains, most PR pros do not do as you describe.

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  • nimiparker

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