A speaker at the recent Mississippi Press Association winter convention stirred things up by telling the gathered editors and publishers: "You all need to find new jobs within 18 months."
"The audience turned on me," the speaker, Alan Jacobson, CEO of Brass Tacks Media, told me after the convention. "They didn't want to hear that the Internet is here, even in rural Mississippi."
Jacobson, of course, is not the first to forecast for the demise of ink-on-paper newspapers, just the most recent. "Sixteen-thousand newspaper jobs were lost last year, and over 100 newspapers of all sizes closed." He said the profit margins are shrinking, "and when the expense line crosses the income line, papers get shut down."
"They all said that once the recession is over, things will be good - but it's not coming back. This is a secular change," Jacobson said.
My predictions are nowhere near as dire as Jacobson's. I think that newspapers that quickly change and modernize can survive by earning both substantial print and online revenues.
I saw an Arbitron report back in 2003 that alarmed me: When a household moved from dial-up Internet to high-speed Internet, the daily time spent reading a newspaper fell from four-tenths of an hour to just over one-tenth of an hour. The same report said that people with high-speed access nearly doubled the time they spent online. Since high-speed was generally seven times faster than dial-up, that meant users were consuming 14 times more media than with dial-up.
Now, virtually everyone has access to high-speed Internet at work, home, coffee shops, libraries and fast food restaurants - even in rural Mississippi. Many more people have "smart phones" and other easy access to the World Wide Web.
The Web isn't the only problem. It's all about data.
After the invention of the telegraph and news wire services, newspapers were king of media as they delivered content that was produced elsewhere - national/international news, financial data, sports, features.
Radio broke the data-delivery monopoly, beginning in the 1920s. But as late as 1935, newspapers sold more than 45 percent of all advertising in the United States. By 1995 - the beginning of the World Wide Web - newspaper advertising had fallen to a 22 percent share. That's the same year TV passed newspapers with a 23 share. Daily newspaper readership fell from 80 percent of Americans in 1964 to 59 percent in 1995 (pre-World Wide Web.)
Research by Zenith shows newspaper ad shares still ahead of Internet advertising share. Zenith projects Internet advertising to pass total newspaper advertising sometime in the next decade. Every other media besides Internet is in a steady decline.
The research predicts print newspapers will remain a major advertising play - behind only all TV (broadcast and cable) and slightly behind all Internet advertising.
So the trick isn't - as Jacobson suggests - for all publishers to find new trades. The trick - in my opinion - is to be the local source of combined print and online advertising.
Critical points for survival:
- Maintain control of the rights to local content generated by the newspaper. This includes knowing who is re-using your content. This means doing as much as your can to protect your copyright privileges, and barring unauthorized scrapers from using your content.
- Create a dominant local Internet product that features content that is different from your print product. The days of simply "shoveling" the print content to the Web need to end. Your Web product should rely heavily on video, audio, user-generated and other content that is not print-centric.
- Have a trained sales staff that knows how to help your local merchants advertise and market in this new world. If your sales team is properly trained - and if you have the right online and print products - the local newspaper franchise should fare well from many years to come.
It's a tough struggle - but it's a battle that can be won with dedication, good local content, a willingness to embrace new technology, good strategic thinking and a well-trained staff.
P.S., Alan Jacobson says he's probably going to stop going to press association conventions. I, on the other hand, am looking forward to attending conventions for many years to come!