Rumours of the death of newspapers are exaggerated though the industry is not without complaint.
That about sums up a discussion I had recently with Russell Wangersky, managing editor of The Telegram.
I explored this subject in a previous blog item, so I called Wangersky last week for comment. He acknowledged that newspaper readership in general is declining, though, for competitive reasons, he would not talk specifically about Telegram circulation numbers.
There is one point he will argue until "blue in the face," Wangersky said.
"Everybody in the new media world argues that what people really want is content, and they want content on the Internet for free," Wangersky said. "But what they forget is that the vast amount of that content is still coming from traditional media. I am looking at Yahoo Canada right now, and, of the seven news stories there, five are linked straight from the Associated Press, and two are Canadian Press. All came from print."
Wangersky's point is that free' content will diminish in quality if web-based news sites lose traditional print as a source of content.
"In the future, everyone expects they will get (online news) for free. The fact is that free' doesn't pay for the people who actually get that news. I've got 31 people in my newsroom, who make a salary. If you want your news for free, how is it going to be paid for? Is it going to be better, or is it going to be worse, if there are no newspapers?"
That said, there is no denying that print is on the decline. There are rumblings that the venerable New York Times saddled with $1 billion in debt and just $28 million in the bank is in dire straits and may fold in just a few months. (Here's how the Times itself feels about that rumour.)
Some daily newspapers, most notably the Christian Science Monitor, have dropped their print editions to go exclusively online.
"A couple of other papers are moving to all-electronic on certain days, or to all single copy sales and getting rid of home delivery," Wangersky said, explaining that home delivery is more expensive to maintain than a retail sales system.
"It's a tricky business right now, especially with the (global) economic situation," he said. "Everybody's looking at a smaller pool of available advertising and more places to put it. Just for example, in media beyond newspapers the provincial government (recently) announced they're putting their ads on network television in three limited markets Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. They're putting the rest of their advertising on specialty channels that have lower costs but reach a much more segmented audience The market is wider, but shallower. As the advertising dollars spread out, so does the ability of people to maintain newsrooms, and so does eventually the content that gets put up. It's like anything anything you want for free, someone has to make. And whoever's making it, it is costing them money to make it."
The Telegram is gradually expanding its presence online, posting a substantial amount of content (including breaking news) and plenty of ads though nowhere near the full edition, except in pdf format for subscribers. However, Wangersky thinks it's far too soon, in this marketplace, to contemplate the transition to an online-only edition.
"Proportionally, the advertising (online) is nowhere near as large (as the print edition)," he said.
And on this point, he's exactly right. If The Telegram attempted to shut down the paper edition and migrate all content and advertising online, it would be catastrophic. These things are market driven, and the local market just isn't there yet.
In my next post, I will examine the other side of the coin, and talk to the developer of Newfoundland's first online-only news service.