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In defense of fewer print editions

By Steve Outing

So much has been written about the New Orleans Times-Picayune cutting back to three days a week for print publication (and laying off a bunch of employees in the “digital-first” transition) that I hesitated adding to the word onslaught.

But I haven’t seen many people defending the move, which results in the largest major U.S. metropolitan area without a daily printed major newspaper. Then I’ll step up to the plate. …

1. Goodbye to the stock tables

My first thought at reading about the uproar — and the protests from various quarters, including local advertisers and community leaders, concerned citizen signing a Change.org petition, and of course the unfortunate journalists working at the newspapers (and some of them about not to be) — was to remember how angry lots of people got years ago when more and more newspapers began to cease printing yesterday’s stock tables in their print editions. (The trend truly took hold in the mid 2000s.)

D’uh! Day-old stock prices on newsprint couldn’t compete with online and mobile listings which were easily searchable and as up-to-the-minute as the markets would allow. Newspaper publishers rightfully ignored the complaints of some print-edition readers and stopped the anachronistic practice — yes, giving up on delivering information that people had consumed in print for many decades, but also saving money on newsprint (i.e., printing fewer pages). To continue publishing pages of stock listings in print would have been folly; at best, a few senior citizens might have continued to peruse them, but not enough to make the practice financially viable.

Reducing print editions to three days a week, as the Times-Picayune and Birmingham News are about to do, and no doubt more newspapers will copy in the months and years ahead, is pretty much the same thing. But it’s an amplified version of taking away one piece of a newspaper’s daily offerings; a community uproar is to be expected. T-P management and executives at parent Advance Publications need to weather this metaphorical storm, because there’s no turning back.

The trend line for advertising revenues in print continues to go down for most newspapers, and the trend line for print readers is headed down at an even-steeper level. It’s unrealistic to think that metro newspapers can continue printing seven days a week, lest they go the way of the Rocky Mountain News.

But what about the high percentage of New Orleans residents (especially older people and the poor) who don’t have Internet access, and thus might become less informed about what’s happening in their community because of the T-P’s cutback in print?

I’m unsympathetic. After all, the print edition of the Times-Picayune is not given away free. (Sure, people can go to the library to read a paper copy of the day’s T-P; they also can read the news online at that same library.) If T-P and Advance executives do digital right, they can move those populations to digital news on the non-print days of the week. I’ll explain that in point No. 2.

2. It’s not (just) the web!

In much of the media coverage about the T-P’s print-reduction plans (and I’ve read lots of it), you find many complaints about the company’s website, NOLA.com, not being up to snuff. At The Atlantic, former T-P journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner John McQuaid has an opinion piece titled “Why a Weak Website Can’t Replace a Daily Newspaper in New Orleans.” At GigaOm, Mathew Ingram writes, “While Advance has promised that it plans to devote more resources to the web, its critics say the company’s existing digital properties don’t exactly fill them with confidence.”

Any major metro newspaper that trims its print schedule really needs to figure out the mobile thing, because that’s where the future audience and revenues are headed

Do you notice the problem? Most everyone writing about the T-P’s transition seems to think that the missing four days a week of print editions will be replaced by the website! And if that’s where NOLA Media Group’s focus is — on expecting readers to view its journalistic product and advertising on a web browser on a computer screen — then there is trouble ahead, and the elderly and the poor may become less informed.

What’s been missing from the conversation about New Orleans is what the Times-Picayune and NOLA Media Group will be doing about news on mobile devices, especially phones. Given the obvious trend toward mobile devices beginning to outnumber computers, that’s where a big portion of the company’s resources and intellectual effort must be steered. (Will this be the case? It’s not looking promising at this point, with the number of T-P journalists about to be laid off estimated at 20-40%.)

Let’s skip across the ocean to Africa for a minute. In much of that continent, land phone lines are impractical, non-existent, or unreliable. But in some of the poorest countries on that continent, it’s common for people to have mobile phones. (Worldwide, 85% of the people on this planet have mobile phones.)

Back to New Orleans, where most people have mobile phones. In the U.S. as a whole, mobile penetration is above 100% for people age 13 and older. (That’s active accounts, with some people having more than one phone; of course, a small percentage of Americans still do not have a mobile phone.) Half of all active mobile phones in the U.S. are now smartphones, and that number will continue to grow.

In an ideal world, perhaps the Times-Picayune and other major metropolitan newspapers could continue to publish daily print editions, or at least print enough to satisfy the demand from the elderly and anti-technology crowd. (That wouldn’t be an ideal world for me; I look forward to the day when printed publications are luxury items, most content is consumed digitally, and the environmental impact of newspaper publishing is lessened significantly.) But daily print publication simply is no longer practical, if newspaper companies are to survive in the digital age.

I humbly suggest that most of New Orleans’ residents can be kept informed throughout the week, even without the T-P printing four days a week. The news company will need to get serious about mobile, and offer (and market!) services that reach the 50% of residents who have smartphones, as well as those still using “feature phones” which have lesser capabilities.

It’s not that difficult to envision a city where residents are alerted to significant local news via mobile-phone alerts and mobile-shortened news reports, whether by smartphone news-alerts or simple text messages on feature phones. If a story is important enough, phone users can read short reports, or smartphone users can read a longer version; or later, they may find a computer to read more, or wait for the next print edition. … Any major metro newspaper that trims its print schedule really needs to figure out the mobile thing, because that’s where the future audience and revenues are headed.

(For an insightful examination of the growth of mobile media, I urge you to read this Atlantic piece by Richard Ting: “Why Mobile Will Dominate the Future of Media and Advertising.”)

I’m not suggesting that the situation in New Orleans is rosy. Obviously, it sucks that many journalists will lose their jobs, and coverage of New Orleans will suffer. But for the Times-Picayune and Advance Publications to heed the call by some in the New Orleans community that it must continue printing seven days a week is not in the interest of having a Times-Picayune news enterprise that can survive long term. The company must make the digital-first transition; postponing this risks the news company getting in truly dire straits not far down the road.

As for the lessened state of journalism in New Orleans, I hope that The Lens, the award-winning investigative and public-interest news non-profit, might expand its reach and influence as a result of a declined Times-Picayune, and be able to hire more reporters and editors. We’ve seen that happen in other cities, such as with Voice of San Diego, which focuses on investigative and public-interest reporting to counter the declines at that city’s major daily newspaper, the U-T.

But what’s happened in New Orleans is inevitable. Let’s deal with it, in New Orleans today, and in other cities tomorrow.

2 Responses to "In defense of fewer print editions"

  1. [...] University of Colorado’s Steve Outing defended the decision to cut print editions, arguing that an investment into mobile media by the TP could keep readers [...]

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