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"Get a horse!” From 1900 to the 1920s, those were the words that made a comedian out of every American who shouted them. Those bellowed beratings were, of course, aimed at people who had purchased one of those newfangled things called “automobiles” and were stuck in the mud, repairing a flat tire, bemoaning a broken-down engine, or cranking a starter.

The expression eventually died. Automobiles triumphed. The population of American horses plunged from 26.5 million in 1915 to a mere 3.6 million in 2012.

A quarter of advertising revenue comes from digital.

Now there is a different rivalry. Readership of print-only newspapers has plunged from 35.4 percent of the population in 2007 to 23.3 percent last year. Newspapers are pouring money into their online editions. Among executives of metro daily newspapers, the battle cry is “digital first!” Newspaper staffs have dropped by 39 percent in the past 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center. Reporters are now trained to use social media and regularly told that “multiplatform” is the future.

But will “digital first!” win out as decisively as “get a horse!” died? You can’t tell it from the statistics — at least yet, according to Hsiang Iris Chyi, a professor and new media researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. This year, with the help of a colleague, she published an eye-opening paper, Reality Check: Multiplatform Newspaper Readership in the United States, 2007–2015. The study picks up facts from such media research organizations as the Pew Research Center and Nielsen Scarborough.

Advertising has seen its biggest revenue drop since 2009.

Online ventures have been around for two decades. Nonetheless, “the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital products in newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups,” writes Chyi.

This raises serious questions about the technology-driven strategy of America’s metro daily newspapers, she says. Remember when Douglas Manchester owned the Union-Tribune? He and his sidekick John Lynch raved about multiplatforms. They had a TV station that broadcast on the paper’s website. It didn’t last long. Neither did Lynch —or Manchester.

A chain of daily newspapers in Denver went gaga over the preachings of a top executive who said digital is essentially newspapers’ only future. The holding company, which owns papers in Denver, San Jose, and St. Paul and recently bought the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise out of bankruptcy, adopted the name Digital First Media.

More newspaper companies saw a loss in 2015.

The Chicago-based newspaper chain that owns the Union-Tribune on June 20 changed its name to tronc — yes, the letter t is not capitalized, although some newspapers defiantly capitalize it. The company announced that it “will change its name to tronc, Inc., a content curation and monetization company focused on creating and distributing premium, verified content across all channels.”

Huh?

Wall Street doesn’t seem impressed with either print or online. For example, the biggest newspaper chain, Gannett, wanted to buy tronc. The Chicago-based chief executive of tronc — a financial swinger devoid of newspaper savvy — wanted $25 a share. According to inside sources, the deal could have been done at $20 — in my opinion, more than double what tronc was worth. Lenders — the only intelligent actors in this drama — smelled potentially deadbeat debtors and did not like the deal. In early November, it was scrapped. Tronc’s stock plunged.

Chart: Total number of newsroom employees at U.S. newspapers

Chyi points out that major newspapers’ online readership “has shown little or no growth since 2007” and more than half of major newspapers have suffered digital declines since 2011. Citing Pew Research, Chyi says, “[D]igital revenue remains insufficient to cover the loss on print revenue.” Newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money on digital. When people seek out online news, they go to sites such as CNN.com, CBS News, ABC News, Google News, Reuters, Yahoo News, MSNBC, and FOXnews, which all do better than newspapers’ online offerings.

The bottom line is “monetization” — making profits. To make money, a company has to have healthy revenue. From 2010 to 2014, print advertising revenue dropped from $22.8 billion to $16.4 billion, while digital advertising revenue edged up from $3 billion to $3.5 billion, notes Chyi. Still, print newspapers account for 82 percent of total newspapers’ revenue.

So, newspaper managements may be looking the wrong way: they are focusing on digital, which is producing “only limited advertising and subscription revenue,” says Chyi. In a study of 51 newspapers’ audience reach, the print edition reached 28.8 percent of local adults and online only 10 percent.

Even young people age 18 to 24 are twice as likely to read the print edition as the online edition: 19.9 percent read the print edition and only 7.8 percent read the digital edition, according to a study by Scarborough (now Nielsen-Scarborough). Of course, those over 55 are much more likely to read a print edition than those 18 to 24. A full 37.2 percent of the old folks (55 and older) read a print edition, almost double the percentage of those 18 to 24.

Why aren’t online editions doing well? After all, they provide news and interpretation as it happens; newspapers delivered to your house are too late with too little. There are several reasons, says Chyi. Online news is a “less satisfying alternative to print newspapers,” particularly for someone who has been working at a computer all day. “The screen-based reading experience is rarely pleasant.” There are cluttered designs, and intrusive ads pop up all the time. If you have the sound on, you will get fingernails-on-the-blackboard screeches all day.

Of course, comparisons can be invidious; the total audience for a local newspaper won’t match the total audience for an international publication. However, among newspapers distributed nationally or internationally, USA Today, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal aren’t among the best-read online publications.

“Fully one-fourth of advertising revenue [for newspapers] now comes from digital advertising, but not because of growth in that area,” says Michael Barthel of the Pew Research Center. “Digital advertising revenue fell 2 percent in 2015. It’s just that non-digital advertising revenue fell more, dropping 10 percent in 2015.”

But the remaining three-fourths came from nondigital sources, mostly print. A local newspaper or TV station may study the statistics and back away from digital. And watch competitors take a chunk of the market.

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Comments

Visduh Nov. 16, 2016 @ 8:35 a.m.

Don, those declines in circulation, revenues and staffing were actually less severe than I had been assuming. But bench-marking those stats in 2007 or later doesn't really show the total picture. By 2007 the papers were retrenching and many had fallen from being very profitable to marginal, or even money losers. If we went back to 2000, or twenty years ago, the declines would look much worse.

The notion of trying to read a newspaper or news magazine in a smartphone is hard to fathom. Oh, these people who walk around all day staring at the phone screen have to be looking at something, but I've often concluded that they have ultra-short attention spans, and are unlikely to be reading something of length and subtlety.

So, the bottom line is that more and more of us are going without news at all. Or if we are getting some, it comes in short bursts like tweets. And that's not a way to evaluate the news or even retain it.

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 11:02 a.m.

Visduh: True. Newpapers were evincing weakness signs long before 2007.It seems to me the stocks crashed in 2005. It was around that time, anyway, there they're was widespread awareness of papers' problems. Also at that time, there was broad confidence that online editions would thrive, or ate least do reasonably well., That has been questionable. Besti, Don Bauder

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Ponzi Nov. 16, 2016 @ 8:52 a.m.

I am an "old folk." Over 55. I still subscribe to the SDUT, and sometimes wonder why I remain a subscriber. I also have an L.A. Times subscription I picked up 5 years ago with a $20 dollar Groupon coupon. I get the L.A. Times from Thursday through Sunday for $20 a year. They keep renewing me at that rate. I guess it would be several hundred dollars if I did not have some computer billing me for the same $20 Groupon deal year after year.

But my reading habits are changing. I have a laptop on my bed and in the morning I peruse the digital editions of the Washington Post, Seattle Times, New York Times, and whatever pops up when I type "news" into Google. If one of them is stubborn about giving me content without an account, I use the Google "incognito" browser feature to open the page.

Although I enjoy taking my paper to the bathroom (it's easier than a laptop), I think my paper days may be coming to an end. But I'll probably keep that cheap L.A. Times subscription.

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MURPHYJUNK Nov. 16, 2016 @ 1:22 p.m.

variable type size on a computer gets real important the older I get

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 11:09 a.m.

Murphyjunk: Truie, but you can always use a magnifying glass with the paper edition. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 11:06 a.m.

Ponzi. If you keep at it, you can talk the Union-Tribune down to a very low price. Just keep saying,'Cancel" and they will probably keep offering you a lower price. Best,, Don Bauder

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Flapper Nov. 17, 2016 @ 8:50 p.m.

Drink lots more water and eat more fiber.

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 11:11 a.m.

Mike Murphy: Remember that your professor, or somebody's professor, makes a bundle off the print text. /Best, Don Bauder

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MURPHYJUNK Nov. 23, 2016 @ 10:37 a.m.

book stores get in on the scam too, pay pennies for used books, sell for big bux

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 11:16 a.m.

Shimizu Randall: Actuallly, I Peffer print ads to online ads, which are so intrusive. Best, Don. Bauder

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Dennis Nov. 17, 2016 @ 1:11 p.m.

“the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital products in newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups,” writes Chyi. I find that hard to believe, as I walk my neighborhood in the morning I see very few copies of the UT on peoples sidewalks/porches. Digital has a broader reach, I can read the NY Times, Wa. Post, and UT online daily. Print news is always at least a day old and who wants to read yesterdays news? I agree that they probably get less revenue from the print ads but then again they cost a lot less to produce and distribute.

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 8:42 p.m.

Dennis: You make some very good points, but the fact is that newspapers have not yet learned how make money on their digital editions. Digital has not caught on as expected for newspapers. Various websites have been successful, but they do not tend to be metro newspapers. Best Don Bauder

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ImJustABill Nov. 17, 2016 @ 5:38 p.m.

Somehow through a friend's son's promotion we got a deal for Sunday-only UT for only $2 / year. I figure it's worth at least that.

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 8:45 p.m.

ImJustABill: Goodness yes, Sunday6-only is worth more than $2 a year, if you only use it on the bottom of canary cages. Best, Don Bauder

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swell Nov. 17, 2016 @ 7:08 p.m.

https://news.google.com provides my bulk news. It can be customized to show your chosen local news- mine includes Voice of San Diego and, of course, the Reader top stories. I don't have a TV, so I get the news I want, when I want it, without commercials- and it's right up-to-the-minute. The text is big and easy to read on my various screens and I don't get ink on my fingers.

I get tech, health, alternative & business news at other densely informative sites. But if the funnies are important to you, or the crossword, or the ads ... well there's still a UT dead tree version for now.

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Don Bauder Nov. 17, 2016 @ 8:50 p.m.

Swell: There are lots of people like you. The web prospers for many news providers, but metro newspapers aren't among them yet. Best, Don Bauder

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Flapper Nov. 17, 2016 @ 8:59 p.m.

The newspapers don't "get" it, and neither do the websites. As the Internet makes people better informed (not to mention misinformed), they become less and less likely to fall for conventional advertising (which will die a slow death if we don't actively kill it first--I prefer the latter).

I know how to do it, but I'll be damned if I will cast perlas before hogs.

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Flapper Nov. 17, 2016 @ 9:01 p.m.

The REAL issue, of course, is how to pay for strong investigative reporting. Especially when you can be Trumped for thumping.

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Darren Nov. 18, 2016 @ 7:16 p.m.

Thanks Don for a good article! I am fairly software/Internet/website savvy, and state with fairly good confidence, the San Diego Union Tribune homepage, is one of the worst designs, and operationally is is just not good. It may have been improved recently, but I pretty much stopped landing on that site about six months ago. It was slow, it would crash, you'd get banner ads covering your headlines or content. I've tried it with Firefox, Chrome and Dolphin, and on my laptop, tablet and phone, with similar results. Then the way they format news categories and news items, is really bad, and they do not prioritize the proper news items by relevance or impact. The old UT-San Diego was better, and even the former Sign-Up San Diego was better than the home site today. If I want to see local breaking news, I go to my phone app, usually for KGTV-10, which seems to update their station/news app fairly quickly. Last I checked, the San Diego U-T does not have an app for my phone. The other day a lady from San Diego U-T (or a contractor) was outside the Santee Grocery Outlet. She tried harder than a good used car salesman, to engage me in conversation and sell me a subscription to the print edition that seemed very inexpensive, if I subscribed to the digital subscription too. I thought it was the other way around, but I had to cut her off and tell her I absolutely would not buy anything because she was using every sales tactic to overcome any objections. The only thing she did not do is extend a stripper's pole and start dancing.

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Visduh Nov. 18, 2016 @ 7:42 p.m.

Excellent post. May we see more from you in coming days, weeks and months? The Reader needs more participation in such comments. (I don't speak for the Reader, just for myself.)

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Darren Nov. 19, 2016 @ 12:49 a.m.

Thank you Visduh, I appreciate your posts as well.

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Ponzi Nov. 23, 2016 @ 5:39 p.m.

tronc uses the same website tools for the L.A. Times. The L.A. Times style took over San Diego. The Chicago Tribune (also owned by tronc) also looks identical. Even the Del Mar Times is using the same style.

This is aimed at centralizing all their web services. They can outsource much of the backroom work. They are using "contract reporters" who file their stories from home. They are becoming something of Huffington Post business model. But what do they do with all their print subscribers and assets?

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