Is Print Dead?

Posted on February 9, 2008 by Tony Uphoff

Like beauty this may be in the eye of the beholder at this phase of the media business. From meetings with media stock analysts and investors to industry events like the Folio Conferences and Price Waterhouse Coopers Media Outlook this is one of the most frequent questions on everyone's mind...is there life in print? The question is not as simple as it appears.

There has clearly been a decrease in advertiser demand for print over the last several years. This is most acute with daily newspapers, some consumer print and in various portions of B2B media. The data is even more dramatic when you factor that The New York Times, as well as other newspaper groups, release their results with print and online revenues combined. In other words the growth in online revenues is masking an even steeper decline in print advertising revenues.

The data would suggest that the rapid advertising decline is following the decline in circulation for newspapers. The hard data and certainly anecdotal data would suggest that there has been a massive fall off in print newspaper readership. There is more to the story however.

The revenue calculus for daily newspapers, like most print, is based on a fairly simple formula of reach=revenue. The higher the reach, the higher the page rate. There have long been rumors in media circles about paid print brands inflating their rate bases in order to drive higher page rates. In 2003 there were a series of investigations into the rate bases of various newspapers and magazines. Turns out the rumors were true. The ranges varied but on average the offending titles had overstated their rate bases by about 20%. Even before these adjustments, the reality is that the reach of daily newspapers was not nearly as large as most people would think. The NY Times has a daily circulation of 1.2 million. This in a town with over 8.2 million residents. The LA Times has a daily circulation of 815k in a county with over 10 million residents. Since the advent of television daily newspapers have not demonstrably changed from these ratios of reach and coverage.

Look, I'm no print apologist. Quite the opposite. If we could stop chopping down trees and bypass the postal services I would do it tomorrow. Online media is without question the fastest growing revenue base for my company as it is with most media companies today. The reality is however there is still very healthy audience demand for print that doesn't synch with the decline in advertiser demand. There are several reasons for this.

1.) Print isn't cool right now. Media businesses, ad agencies and marketers aren't focused on print, as its not popular. If you want to see buzzkill in action, watch a marketer or agency give a presentation to a client on the need for print as part of a marketing program.

2.) Bean Counters. The vast majority of media companies with rapidly declining print revenues have changed from privately held to public companies or been sold to private equity ownership over the last 5-7 years. The Tribune Company as an example has had no clear plan other than to attempt to save their way to greatness. They have done literally nothing with any of their print products to redefine or reposition them in an online centric world. To watch the newspaper I grew up reading, The LA Times, become a confused-don't know if we're international, regional, local- unfocused mess, with no consistent point of view, no editorial direction and no rudder whatsoever was a shame. Again the only clear strategy has been cost savings. In addition watching the majority of daily newspaper web efforts, which for the most part are read only Web 1.0 sites at best, has been laughable. At the same time there have been examples of great innovation with daily newspapers in other areas, notably in Europe with brands like The Guardian.

3.) There is a new center of gravity. Every 100 years or so there is a legitimate revolution in media, that forces all other media to redefine their value. Television was the first clear example of this. The Internet is the second. Print can no longer ignore that the Web is the center of gravity in media and as such print needs to be redefined with this clear understanding.

So...is print dead? From my vantage point this can only be answered brand by brand and market by market. Print will never return to the center of gravity. That being said there is life in the platform as long as print publishers have a clear vision of how to redefine their print offerings to assure that they continue to innovate in what is now an online centric world.,

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