Paper trail of tears
Thursday, January 8th, 2009
Excellent analysis but grim news for print-lovers from Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic:
Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist. And it will likely have plenty of company. In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: “Fitch believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”
Most likely, the interim step for The Times and other newspapers will be to move to digital-only distribution (perhaps preserving the more profitable Sunday editions). Already, most readers of The Times are consuming it online. The Web site, nytimes.com, boasted an impressive 20 million unique users for the month of October, making it the fifth-ranked news site on the Internet in terms of total visitors. (The October numbers were boosted by interest in the election, but still …) The print product, meanwhile, is sold to a mere million readers a day and dropping, and the Sunday print edition to 1.4 million (and also dropping). Print and Web metrics are not apples-to-apples, but it’s intuitively the case that the Web has extended The Times’ reach many times over.
The conundrum, of course, is that those 1 million print readers, who pay actual cash money for the privilege of consuming the paper, and who are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, are far more profitable than the 20 million unique Web users, who don’t and aren’t. Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity.