Readers will decide print media's future

Posted April 2, 2014

By Alison Noon, journalism student, University of Colorado

Newspaper executives said in the closing session of the 2014 NAA mediaXchange that the future of print media is out of their hands.

Katharine Weymouth, publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, led three longtime newspapermen in a discussion Tuesday that recapitulated the necessity of a conference focused largely on mobile news, social media and digital subscriptions.

Larry Kramer, publisher of USA Today, said he could not begin to predict what effects new technologies and consumer preferences may have on newspapers’ print products next. Consumers, Kramer said, will decide the role of print in future news ecosystems.

“We’re not going to tell them when to stop using [print] newspapers,” Kramer said of newspaper executives like himself and readers. “They’re going to tell us, and they have all the time in the world.”

Bob Dickey, president of the Gannett U.S. Community Publishing Division, formerly Newspaper Division, was somewhat optimistic that newspapers will continue to arrive on doorsteps the next few years.

“I’m not here to predict the seven-day frequency, but there will be newspapers for at least another 10 or 20 years,” Dickey, who was elected chairman of the Newspaper Association of America on Tuesday, said of print products.

A study conducted Jan. 9 through Feb. 16 by the Media Insight Project showed Americans on average had followed news on four different devices over the previous week. Print newspapers or magazines were among the top four mediums from which the study indicated consumers get their news.

Source: American Press Institute

Kramer reminded the panel and audience that the tangible aspect of newspapers, which he said is one of the primary reasons people subscribe, could be digitally replicated by flexible computer screens in the very near future.

“Well, people have been talking about that forever,” Weymouth responded in reference to the concept of digital paper.

Newspaper executives who catch a glimpse of what is to come still cannot predict technological advances and consumer response, Kramer said.

“The fact is none of us know,” Kramer said. “The fact is there are so many new and different ways of disseminating content.”

After the panel touched on the growing popularity of owning news media organizations, the panel discussed how newspapers and young news consumers interact in the face of new technology. Kramer argued that young print-edition readers were never up for discussion.

“It’s easy to forget that young people never read papers,” Kramer said of the industry’s readership before the Internet. The Media Insight Project study found that today nearly half of Americans ages 18-29 read news in print form over the last week.

Amid an effort to attract digital subscribers, newspaper businesses have missed out on a new, potential audience, said Michael Klingensmith, publisher and CEO of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

“Young people — we have this image of them only utilizing free products,” Klingensmith said. “But our young people subscribe to a lot of things.”

Dickey said if young people are willing to pay for mobile applications and extra time in online games, newspapers should be able to tap that audience using the subscription platform.

Klingensmith said it’s not a matter of newspaper content quality, but whether content is “interesting enough for [young people] to want to subscribe to us.”

Although more people are likely to switch to digital content, Kramer said, print products will continue to sell in local markets.

“It’s not like there’s a moment in time where everybody from a certain year on just stops reading newspapers,” Kramer said of print products.

Alison Noon is a journalism student at the University of Colorado. Find her on Twitter at @alisonnoon.