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What would you do today if you knew when your print newspaper would die?

01 November 2010 · By Earl J. Wilkinson

If you knew the precise date that your print newspaper would cease to exist, what decisions would you make starting today to replace that profit center?

If you knew the precise date that your print newspaper would cease to exist, what decisions would you make starting today to replace that profit center? How different would your choices be if you had seven years of life versus 30 years?

That is the tantalizing conversation starter presented by futurist Ross Dawson who today released the “Newspaper Extinction Timeline.” The timeline maps out — country by country — when newspapers “in their current form” will become “insignificant” based on global and national factors.

Dawson believes that 52 countries will drop the newspaper habit between 2017 and 2039 — including the United States in 2017, the United Kingdom and Iceland in 2019, and Canada in 2020. Most of Western and Central Europe will drop newspapers in the 2020s, along with Australia and New Zealand. East Asia and parts of Latin American urban markets will go in the 2030s. The rest of the world is safe until at least 2040, Dawson says.

The Dawson timeline reminds me of Philip Meyer's 2004 prediction in The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, using readership trend data from 1967 to 2002, that U.S. newspaper readership would reach zero in April 2043.

Judging from the tart reactions from the Twitterverse and all platforms digital, Dawson hit a nerve today. He even remarked that today marked the best visitor day ever for his web site. I'll bet.

Let me step up to the plate and respond to this latest doomsday prediction: he's mostly correct.

Maybe not the dates, which are too aggressive. Maybe there's a lot of qualitative wiggle room for more precise definitions of “newspapers in their current form” and even “insignificant.” But most of the factors and the country-by-country order of progression fit with what I see worldwide.

Breathe in. Hold it. Count back from 10. Breathe out.

Sometime in this planet's history, there will be a tipping point whereby the economics of mass-producing news on paper won't be worth it to the publisher. There won't be enough advertising or consumer revenue to cover the costs of printing and distribution. And there will be sufficient consumer, advertiser, and publisher platform alternatives to discontinue print as a primary vehicle.

Business decisions will be made. Platforms will shift. Journalists will still have a home. Publishers will still be rich. And the world will continue.

Unlike Phil Meyer's slow descent into Hell less than 33 years from today, publishers will choose to stop mass-printing long before the dreaded zero. It will come in a series of tipping points and awkward adjustments that are playing out on the world stage even as these words are typed.

We'll wring wretched efficiencies out of print. We'll cut editorial staff through a constant series of prioritisation exercises regarding content on newsprint. We'll outsource production. We'll outsource delivery. We'll slim down the number of pages printed. We'll cut print frequency from seven days to five days to three days to weekly. We'll bring in McKinsey or Bain or Boston Consulting to decide the precise angle of the print decline.

None of this really matters. No matter what we do internally, we cannot escape the external factors shaping how information is consumed. We cannot escape the pace of technological change. We cannot escape the nature of consumer behaviour. Dawson neatly breaks these factors into two parts: global and national.

Globally, we will see:

  • Increased cost performance of tablets/e-readers.
  • Changes in newsprint and print production costs.
  • Increased cost performance of mobile phones.
  • Trends in advertising spend and allocation.
  • Development of open platforms.
  • Uptake of digital news monetisation mechanisms.
  • Development of high-performance digital paper.

Nationally — what makes the United States different from Germany which is different from India — we will see varying degrees of:

  • Technology uptake.
  • Economic development.
  • Demographics.
  • Consumer behaviour.
  • Industry structure.
  • Government regulation.

Newsmedia executives know all of this. We've seen these variables a thousand times. That's why we're going through transformation, re-imagination, and strategic evaluation projects at every news company in the world. That's why INMA is putting so much energy into the practicalities of transitioning to multi-media companies as an over-arching theme in the next year. That's why 90% of our industry's strategic energy is being invested in 10% of today's revenue model.

What I like about Dawson's nudge is that it reminds us that the clock is ticking. We can't work fast enough at the corporate level or the industry level to develop digital platforms that connect with readers and advertisers. We can't work fast enough to build multi-media companies where print, online, mobile, iPad and others each play to their strengths and interact. Just as we were warned in the 1990s that classified advertising could disappear and we need to prepare for that, we need to be preparing today for an all-digital future — whether that comes in 2025, 2050, 2100, or some year beyond the reach of our great-grandchildren.

Here's an interesting exercise for your management team: pick the date Dawson says your country's newspapers will be “insignificant” and work backward. What would you need to do between today and that date to transform your business model and generate enough revenue to preserve today's level of journalism at a sufficiently profitable level? We may all make similar choices, but my guess is the sense of urgency is more intense in the United States than India.

Print is evolving from an end-all-be-all distribution vehicle for what media companies do best to a situational revenue driver and a tangible brand vehicle. Short-term, print plays a dominant role so long as advertisers see value. Long-term, print becomes a brand package to remind people of digital options. It might become a loss leader. It might become our weekly marketing vehicle for our rainbow of content options on hundreds of platforms. I suspect that if this were our sole brand conveyance vehicle and not just a schlepper of news, we'd make better qualitative choices about paper weight, paper style, paper width, and more.

Earlier today, I was contacted by a journalist from a prominent European newspaper about Dawson's report. At first, I thought I was being interviewed for a story. Yet the back-and-forth exchange seemed to get more and more personal with each subsequent e-mail. At some point, he told me that Dawson's timeline made him think about jumping out of journalism altogether.

To which I say: relax. There's nothing new here except the assignment of a date — something that should be unsettling.

Yet if a few dates assigned to something we're already focused on contribute 1% additional urgency to our industry's transformation from print to multi-media and the structure of our news ecology — with print still playing a part, even if “insignificant” — then we can thank Ross Dawson for his contribution.


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About Earl

Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. In his interactions with INMA members worldwide, Earl has one of the broadest views of newspapers of anyone serving our industry today. He is a trendspotter and a leading advocate for cultural change, transformation, and innovation. This blog represents his unique view of the emerging global news media industry.

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