Newspapers are in decline because of economic and technological factors, but their life span is measured by demographic factors. They will exist as an industrial product for no longer than the mid-2030s. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).
Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization – not to mention their reason for being – reflects the worldview promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis.
“Me? Personally? I’m neither pessimist nor optimist… I’m an apocalyptic!”
When newspapers die
I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who once said that any story is a tragedy, you just need to tell it honestly till the very end.
The last newspaper generation is comprised of people born in the early 1980s. Up to their coming of age in the 1990s, when the internet entered their homes, they saw their parents reading and subscribing to newspapers and magazines. Members of this generation are digital migrants because they have already transferred their news and entertainment consumption onto the internet. But they at least have had not only the sensorial but also the economic experience of interacting with papers. They have some readers’ consumer skills and remember the myth of newspapers’ significance.
For those born in the 1990s and socialized in the 2000s, PCs, laptops, smartphones and all sorts of gadgets were already all around. These kids, the millennials, were the first digital generation, the digital natives. They might have had a sensorial experience of interacting with paper, but, statistically speaking, they do not know how to buy it at the stand or how to subscribe to it.
Moreover, they do not have any need to purchase papers or magazines. In their rare encounters with the press, the press is most likely given to them for free. The digital natives see newspapers either as an artifact of the past or as a promotional channel. They do not have the economic or social experience of interacting with newspapers as a commodity or an agenda supplier. The worst thing is that their same attitude is extrapolated to journalism in general.
The next digital generation, generation Z, has not even had a sensorial experience with the press. Hundreds of thousands of today’s students have never even touched a newspaper.
The digital natives (who have no newspaper experience) will displace the digital migrants (who have some newspaper experience) at the commanding heights in the economy, politics and households by the mid-2030s. At that point, nobody will know how to consume newspapers. Newspapers are in decline because of economic and technological factors, but their life span is measured by demographic factors. They will exist as an industrial product for no longer than the mid-2030s at the latest. After that, newspapers will become historical artifacts, sometimes items of vintage consumption or antiquary interest, and sometimes artforms – just as McLuhan saw the fate of some media after they cease doing their entitled job and become obsolescent.
It will take a while for the industry to go through economic shrinkage, but the process is already well underway. The press industry will collapse sometime between now and the mid-2030s.
So, the inevitable death of newspapers poses no dissenting question. It is a historical fact that just needs some time to complete its occurrence. The question is the methodology of the time-to-event calculation.
The death of newspapers will most likely happen instantly and simultaneously in different countries with little to no variations related to local specificities.
Historically, the proliferation of the press lasted almost four centuries, starting with first German newspapers in the 1600s. As the emergence of newspapers was most likely linked to the liberation of the national bourgeoisie – liberation from local princes or colonial powers – print media appeared in different countries in different periods. However, each subsequent technological wave of mass media expanded across the planet ever more rapidly. Whilst radio and TV spread over decades, the internet spread its tentacles throughout the world in a mere 20 years. Social media captured the world instantly; for them, the areas of proliferation were demographic rather than geographical.
Social media thus equalized the pace of media evolution across the world’s countries. Therefore, the factors impacting the decline of newspapers appeared everywhere at once and simultaneously, if looked at from a historical perspective.
The most important of these factors were:
1) The media lost its monopoly over agenda setting because the internet offered an alternative, crowdsourced mode of agenda-setting;
2) Audiences and advertisers migrated to better platforms that provided more efficient advertising; and
3) The competition for time spent with media has become extremely intense; new and newly arriving digital media are much more efficient at capturing users’ attention, leaving newspapers, and old media in general, with an ever-shrinking share of our daily time.
Accelerators and decelerators of newspaper extinction
The process of newspaper extinction has accelerators and decelerators.
The social media proliferation serves as the main economic and technological accelerator for newspaper extinction. However, demographic factors are the defining ones in terms of calculating the time remaining for the press as an industry.
The time left for the last newspaper generation to live and hold commanding heights in society and households sets the time limits for newspapers. But this also maintains these time frames, serving as a decelerator of the newspaper decline. People who remember the myth of newspapers and have newspaper-consumption skills might be willing to support newspapers for far longer than it will ordinarily be provided by market factors – but not longer, of course, than the lifespan of these people.
The market is already ready to drop newspapers, but society is not. The commercial demand for newspapers has already almost vanished, but the social demand has remained rather strong.
The social demand for newspapers will also create some country-specific decelerators for the process of newspaper decline.
In the countries with stronger state regulations or more authoritarian regimes, the authorities will see newspapers as a traditional and still valuable channel for communicating with their popular base. Even though this audience is also moving to the digital reality, there will be a shared belief that newspapers still matter to the older generation. Therefore, the authority will financially support newspapers long after it makes sense from an economic perspective.
Another similar decelerator in such countries relates to the ability of local newspapers to provide a well-controlled communication channel for the local authorities. Amid the alternative agendas on the internet, which cannot be controlled at the local level whatsoever, local newspapers can preserve valuable agenda-setting opportunities for local princelings. Besides, the digital backwardness of some places can give newspapers a place to live a little while longer there. Thus, an authoritarian demand, related to local specificities, will decelerate the pace of newspaper extinction in some regions.
In the countries with free markets and developed democracy, a social demand will also decelerate the pace of newspaper decline. The myth of newspapers, or the belief that newspapers are important for democracy, held by the older generation and desperately promoted by newspapers themselves, allows newspapers to survive and sometimes even to thrive far beyond the ‘purely’ market logic. Society and local communities can also support newspapers as an element of their habitual social landscape.
This is already happening: many subscribers, if not the majority, pay not for news (which they consume in other ways) but simply for newspapers to exist. Foundation funding, the membership model, and other forms, essentially, of donations are becoming more present in the media business. Having almost lost the traditional business model comprised of reader and ad revenue, newspapers themselves have started to either ask for donations directly or solicit subscription as donation.
This change in funding has profoundly impacted agenda-setting, a fact that has gone unnoticed by the public. In general, asking for subscription as donation causes the media to politicalize, radicalize and polarize agendas, contributing to general political discord in society, a phenomenon that will be explored in detail later. For now, it is important to acknowledge that there are factors besides market demand that are allowing newspapers to survive longer than the market itself would provide. These decelerators of newspaper extinction are powerfully transforming the nature of the latest (and the last) newspapers, a phenomenon that has not yet been explored properly.
Nevertheless, whichever decelerators afford newspapers a few more years of survival, the time limit of the industry’s demise is defined by demographic factors. New communication technologies triggered the process of newspaper extinction. The market speeds it up, and social habits slow it down. But it will be demographics that will eventually frame it in time.
Whether it be authorities’ beliefs in the significance of newspapers for addressing the popular base, or the audience’s beliefs in the significance of newspapers for preserving democracy or community, these beliefs are tied to generational factors. When the generation associated with these beliefs are gone, newspapers will be gone, too. There will be no reason for them to exist. Market excuses have already vanished, and social reasons are tied to the remaining lifespan of the last newspaper generation.
However, the major events of extinction will happen well in advance of the last newspaper’s final days. The industry’s collapse will be instantaneous due to the technical aspects of production and distribution. A cheap good with low added value can provide sufficient revenue to be economically viable only through a sustainable sales turnover, which, in turn, requires expensive infrastructure. This infrastructure will collapse not after the turnover drops to near zero, but merely down to 50–60–70%, depending on the efficiency of the operational model.
Continuing support of an operation with no prospect of covering debts makes no sense. Of course, some philanthropic billionaires or foundations can breathe some life into the body of newspapers beyond their commercial demise, perhaps even up to the end of the allotted time of the last newspaper generation. However, it is obvious that there will be very few of them, and the vast majority of newspapers will collapse much earlier, when the social decelerators cease to compensate for the impact of the economic accelerators.
In other words, the critical point-of-no-return for the collapse of the system of newspaper production and distribution will be reached well before the social demand falls to zero. This tectonic event will happen in about mid- to late 2020s. Thereafter, a long trail of residual newspaper shutdowns will continue until the mid-2030s. No longer, no sooner.
The newspaper industry is therefore heading towards five years of agony followed by 10 years of convulsions, before its death. Some nostalgic production of newspapers for vintage use may of course remain afterwards, but it will be a matter of arts, not industry.
It is already on its way
The critical events will look like a tsunami of dramatic shutdowns of giants. However, newspaper extinction is already underway. The signs of it are just less noticeable or wrongly interpreted as a cyclical crisis. Newspapers are cutting jobs and downsizing the scale of operations as they try to move from print to digital. All these activities look like the search for a solution and create the illusion of possible adaptation. Observers may expect a rebound, but the crisis is not cyclical, it is existential.
The shutdown of smaller newspapers started long ago. In the American media market, which is not just setting the tone but is still the strongest in the world, the first noticeable shutdown was that of the Ann Arbor News in 2009, which made Ann Arbor the first city in the US to lose its only daily newspaper.
What was foreseen by media-futurologists in the early 2010s started being noticed by investors and publishers by the late 2010s. In 2017, Warren Buffett said that, “most newspapers, including his own, are doomed.” He only made some reservations regarding the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, as they had succeeded in selling digital content; he assumed they would be able to survive.
Of course, the prophecy of the world’s most famous investor should be taken very seriously, however I beg to differ with him with regard to the lucky chosen three exceptions he promulgated.
Unlike the past, the future does not exist in a fixed state. When speaking about the future, one should specify the time frame. In the future, there is no future-at-large. А close-horizon future is completely different from a far-horizon future. Those three newspapers might survive longer than others, but no longer than the last newspaper generation.
The CEO of one of the three, the most successful in digital subscriptions (the New York Times), Mark Thompson in 2018 was more precise in defining the remaining lifespan of print. As quoted by CNBC, he said that,
“I believe at least 10 years is what we can see in the U.S. for our print products,” Thompson said on “Power Lunch.” He said he’d like to have the print edition “survive and thrive as long as it can,” but admitted it might face an expiration date.
“We’ll decide that simply on the economics,” he said. “There may come a point when the economics of [the print paper] no longer make sense for us.”
Thompson assured that the New York Times was “pivoting”: “Digital subscriptions, in fact, may be what’s keeping the New York Times afloat for a new generation of readers.” But he also admitted that, at the time, “Without question we make more money on a print subscriber.” (this changed during the pandemic lockdown in 2Q 2020)
This is an issue. While there are some rare examples of successful and sometimes even skyrocketing growth of digital subscriptions for some leading newspapers, mostly following the effect of the so-called Trump bump (reviewed in the next chapter), the digital growth might be more arithmetic than monetary. Newspapers simply undercharge digital readers in order to attract as many digital subscriptions as possible in the hope of increasing subscription prices someday in the future. But the digital subscription price cannot be as large as the print one – neither logically, nor psychologically.
Not only do bravura reports on digital subscription growth relate to very few papers, they also do not reflect, for many, the real business gains. The push for digital subscriptions might help to grow the audience numbers, but less so the business results.
As John Paton, the promoter of the “digital first” media strategy, once sadly admitted, “Print dollars are becoming digital dimes.” (Since then, worse has happened: they have turned into mobile pennies.) But expenses remain in dollars. I also once happened to come across a media org’s data, according to which a seven-dollar decrease in print revenue was compensated for by only a one-dollar increase in digital revenue. The traditional business of the media has been collapsing much faster than the digital one has been growing.
The least obvious and yet most shocking aspect of the discussion about the death of newspapers is the fact that we are discussing the fate of journalism, not just papers. This is neither a cyclical crisis nor a matter of transition; this is the end of an era. To understand this, it is necessary to analyze the ways in which print journalism was organized, for what social demand and what business supported its social functions…
 Edmonds, Rick. (2009, June 16). “Why Ann Arbor will be the first city to lose its only daily newspaper.” Poynter. https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2009/why-ann-arbor-will-be-the-first-city-to-lose-its-only-daily-newspaper/
 Ingram, Mathew. (2017, February 28). “Warren Buffett says most newspapers, including his own, are doomed.” Fortune. https://fortune.com/2017/02/28/buffett-newspapers-doomed/
 Ell, Kellie. (2018, February 12). “New York Times CEO: Print journalism has maybe another 10 years.” CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/12/print-journalism-may-last-another-10-years-new-york-times-ceo.html
 The New York Times Company reports 2020 second-quarter results. (2020, August 5). https://investors.nytco.com/news-and-events/press-releases/#data-item=The-New-York-Times-Company-Reports-2020-Second-Quarter-Results.
 Ingram, Mathew. (2013, November 18). “John Paton says what most media CEOs won’t about paywalls — they are a short-term tactic at best.” GigaOm. https://gigaom.com/2013/11/18/john-paton-says-what-most-media-ceos-wont-about-paywalls-they-are-a-short-term-tactic-at-best/