Printed Newspaper Executives Visions of the Future

I frequently write about newspapers’ experience with the new medium because theirs has been the longest experience.

The New York Times launched the world’s first online edition in 1974 with LexisNexis, followed by many magazines and other newspapers on that professional online service or competitors such as Dialog. Though I forget which printed periodical launched the first online edition aimed at consumers , but it probably was on an dial-up bulletin board service around 1980. Many newspapers and magazines launched online editions on CompuServe and Prodigy later that decade. And in 1995, The San Jose Mercury News became the world’s first newspaper to launch an edition on the World Wide Web. Broadcasters followed years behind.

So what have newspapers learned during all that time? What can anyone learn from newspapers’ experiences with the new medium?

One facet can be glimpse in the cover story of the October edition of Editor and Publisher magazine, the trade journal of the American newspaper industry. Entitled 2020: A Press Odyssey, it asked print newspaper executives what they think their products will look like in 15 years. [Unfortunately, the cover story is available online only to the magazine’s print edition subscribers or to paying subscribers of its online edition.] Here are some excerpts:

Industry veterans across the country imagine neither the disappearance of printed editions nor the likely appearance of all- digitally printed newspapers by 2020. Almost all, however, point to improved targeting of advertising and customer-selectable content. “I don’t think that in 15 years our economic model is going to allow us to mass-market everything to everybody,” says Richard Rinehart, operations VP at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

“The idea that we call ourselves a newspaper is a problem,” says St. Petersburg Times Tampa [sic] Publisher Joe DeLuca, because it identifies the business by its distribution channel — something like “Coke calling itself a can.” The former Times operations director now responsible for the paper’s business operations in Tampa says advertisers are focused more on niche markets, and want to target them in ways that mass distribution now cannot.

“I believe the whole paper will have to be targeted,” with only requested sections delivered, says LA Weekly Production Director Robin Shank, adding that subscribers shouldn’t have to toss out half their papers. … What’s more, she and others think revenues should rise from charging subscribers by the section and raising ad rates to correspond with subscriber-section targeting. … Advertisers know not everyone reads every section. “They’re not stupid,” says Shank. “If I’m buying that section, I’m a heck of a lot more valuable to that advertiser because I’m going to read it.” Rather than selling an ad on the strength of total circulation, she urges charging advertisers a premium rate to reach those they know will see their ads.

“We just need to become more of a niche product,” says Rinehart, even if it means doing some custom assembly. “It’s not all about savings.”

Shank says [this] unbundling is hard to sell, nowhere more than in the newsroom. At Gannett, Production Vice President J. Austin Ryan isn’t buying either. Besides waste and time-consuming replates and restarts of many small zoned runs, he worries that if publishers tell advertisers that few read the section in which their ads appear, many will just ask to move their ads to the A section, which cannot hold every ad.

On the other hand, Ryan thinks distribution needs only to be better utilized. “We have a distribution system that works very well — at 4 o’clock in the morning,” he says, calling it the envy of the U.S. Postal Service and wondering if it couldn’t deliver whatever customers are willing to pay for.

Future post-press automation, therefore, will need to shrink the workforce and “allow mass customization,” … says consultant and former Gannett production executive Chuck Blevins The good news, he adds, is that systems at the front end of publishing are up to the task.

Most of the rest of the cover story details the pre-press, press, and post-press technologies needed to make such things happen, details that will probably bore newspaper online edition executives as much as their talk about server technologies, JavaScripting, and Flash bore the print executives. It’s nonetheless an excellent article by E&P Senior Editor Jim Rosenberg.

I’ve been writing since 2000 (example) about how printing press technologists are moving towards the idea of the individually customizable newspaper, yet most newspapers’ online executive dismiss the concept of offering equally customizable editions online. Why is that?

Of course, this E&P cover story begs the question of whether or not a print newspaper industry will exist in America by 2020. A few years ago, when the industry’s perrenial circulation declines were only in the 0.5 to 1 percent range, Journalism Professor and former Knight Ridder newspapers executive Philip Meyer, the author of the recent book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, noted that “the last daily reader will disappear in September 2043.”

During the past few years, despite a rising economy, those annual circulation declines have accelerated into the mid to high single percentages. If all these trends continue, that predicted last reader might arrive 23 years earlier and read an individually customized edition.


“Thanks for the summary Vin, but you got the E&P homepage link wrong. The article you cite is at:

“If any non-subscribers want to read it in full, ping me (jdefoore AT yahoo DOT com) and I’ll send you the text with the hope that you’ll subscribe.

“And if this subject really interests you, check out E&P‘s Web Exclusive here (FREE):
Jay DeFoore, E&P‘s Online Editor

(Jay: Thanks, I’ve corrected the URL in the original posting. – Vin)

“I’m as baffled as you are by the industry’s insistence on the persistence of print, given that they were asked to project 15 years out. I’m not among those who think print will entirely disappear, but I can’t help but wonder if the value of those multimillion press plants for all those targeted editions won’t be wiped out before the cost of them is even amortized?

“Cheers and thanks for your posts.” — Mark Hamilton

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