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William Ketter

Should newspapers, like Socrates, accept death over exile to an uncertain fate? Drink the hemlock and end this ceaseless torture about our print future?

That’s what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did yesterday, shutting down after 146 years of publishing and thus subtracting another title from the vanishing roster of competing dailies in America.

Last month, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News closed. Soon the Tucson Citizen will follow suit, leaving only four big cities with rival papers: New York, Chicago, Detroit and Boston. And the outlook is dim for the weaker papers in those communities.

Despite this winnowing process, accelerated by the recession, it is a colossal mistake to predict the newspaper industry’s imminent death. Few businesses are better positioned to grow and prosper in the digital age.

Let me explain.

Overall, the newspaper industry remains profitable. Yes, the percentage of advertising revenue that drives profit has slipped precipitously and no one expects a return to the golden years. Circulation is also off because fewer people are reading newspapers, though their Web sites are steadily gaining users.

Still, we are in much better shape than our critics give us credit for. Cost control coupled with new print and online products have kept most papers in the black. Scores of dailies and weeklies are employing imagination to counter the recession and they are winning.

Once the economy stabilizes, then begins to grow, these papers will prosper as model sources for print and electronic information, including the Web and mobile devices. They will be leaner and wiser.

For newspapers, the key to the future is understanding it, knowing that operating changes are necessary now to meet the expectations of news consumers that will want their news fast, compact, convenient.

And useful. That means in print form for some, in electronic form for others, and in both forms for many.

Transformation is well underway in all disciplines of the newspaper industry: editorial, advertising, production and distribution. A test run of how these different aspects may function in the future begins later this month in Detroit, where rival newspapers will reduce home delivery to three days but make their papers available on the newsstands and on the Web every day.

Detroit is an experiment and it may fail. But it has elements of opportunity that likely will survive even if the two papers — Detroit Free Press and Detroit News — conducting the test don’t.

Elements such as:

• Home delivery of the printed paper on those days of the week – Thursday, Friday and Sunday – when advertising volume is highest.

• Reduced paper and distribution costs on the other days of the week.

• Around-the-clock news reporting on the Web and to mobile devices.

• Ads that complement each other in print and online.

Memories are short when it comes to the history of the newspaper industry in America. It has thrived for more than 200 years by responding to market forces. Many papers failed to survive these forces in the 19th century and in the 20th century. But the vast majority did.

So don’t pass the hemlock just yet. Newspapers have plenty of life left in them as the primary source for news and advertising that people can rely on and trust.

William B. Ketter is vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a company with media outlets in 26 states. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com.

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