The Print Apocalypse and How to Survive It

With paper ads in massive decline, legacy newspapers like The New York Times are slowly returning to the business models that dominated the ’30s—the 1830s.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

For the last 15 years, the decline of print newspapers has been the sort of story that, ironically, many newspapers have trouble following. It is not breaking news, nor a violent explosion, but rather a decade-long structural shift without heroes or obvious villains. Between 2000 and 2015, print newspaper advertising revenue fell from about $60 billion to about $20 billion, wiping out the gains of the previous 50 years.

But lately, the collapse of newspapers is looking less like a steady erosion than an accelerating avalanche. This should scare both reporters and readers—all the while, pointing to a new business model for legacy newspapers that is, ironically, their first business model. The collapse of advertising is across the board, affecting just about every broadsheet and tabloid. Print ads are down 15 percent at Gannett, down 17 percent at McClatchy, and down 16 percent at Tronc. The Wall Street Journal is cutting staff and trimming sections, like Greater New York.

Where is all of this money going? To tiny plates of glass. Two earnings reports this week offered a microcosmic glimpse of the shift. On Wednesday morning, the New York Times announced that print ad revenue fell 19 percent for the quarter. Nine hours later, on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook announced that its digital advertising revenue rose 59 percent. There is no direct comparison between the Times, a newspaper that pays luxuriously for reporters and editors, and Facebook, an attention arbitrage network that induces content from unpaid maker-viewers. But it illustrates the larger story most dramatically told by venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s annual slideshow: Audiences are migrating from print bundles to mobile networks and aggregators.

Mary Meeker/KPCB

The mobile ad market is duopolistic, with Facebook and Google earning about half of all revenue.That still leaves a multi-billion dollar pool of money for the taking. But there are hundreds of large and thirsty animals at the water’s edge. The herd of national “newspapers” is crowded, with BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Vox, Refinery29, Breitbart, Drudge, and dozens more newspaper, magazine, and digital-only sites attracting national audiences that are much larger than any national newspapers could have dreamed of in the 1990s. (Not to mention commercial sites like Craigslist, which have replaced the lucrative classifieds section.) Scale is a beautiful thing. But online, the business model for most of these sites isn’t about maximizing value per reader but rather about maximizing readers at a vanishingly small per-unit value.

Where do newspapers go from here? Back to readers, perhaps. In 2000, circulation accounted 26 percent of the New York Times' revenue. By 2014, well into the collapse of print advertising, circulation’s share had grown to 54 percent, after including the paper’s growing digital subscriptions. Today circulation is 60 percent of the company and growing. About 1.6 million people now subscribe to the paper’s journalism or crossword app, and online subs are growing faster than they were a year ago.

This future of the newspaper business would serve as a corrective, returning the industry to its distant past. In Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, he tells the story of the dawn of newspaper advertising. In the 1830s, the largest newspaper in New York City had a circulation of only 2,600, at a price of 6 cents, making it a luxury product for its time. Benjamin Day, a 23-year-old print shop owner, had the ingenious idea to sell a paper for a penny. That cent wouldn’t cover the cost of journalism and printing, but that was alright, because Day’s decided he would use the low price to attract an audience of readers that could be converted into a salable audience for advertisers. The customers were the product. His paper, the New York Sun, first appeared on September 3, 1833. Within two years, it had nearly 20,000 readers, the most of any paper in the city. Day “decisively demonstrated that a business could be founded on the resale of human attention,” Wu wrote.

The emerging business models of the Times and the Wall Street Journal are slowly traveling back in time to recover the subscription-first model that dominated the industry before the 1830s—with one important catch. The 1830s were a heyday of local papers; without the advent of telegraphs or telephones, news didn't travel well. But today it’s local news organizations that are suffering the most. “People in Cleveland and Dallas and San Diego have not only stopped subscribing to their local newspapers but in many cases are reading the websites of national news organizations instead of the website of their local paper," wrote Timothy Lee at Vox, one of the foremost news sites he’s talking about.

Since the end of the recession, newspapers and magazines have shed about 113,000 jobs, while Internet publishing companies have added about 114,000. That makes it sound as if the jobs are merely shifting from pulp to pixels, but the jobs aren’t the same: There is a parallel shift from local news reporting to national news, a result of these sites needing to maximize readership. The share of reporting jobs in national news hubs like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., increased by 60 percent between 2004 and 2014.

National reporting might be stronger than ever, but the combination of print’s demise, digital advertising’s duopolistic concentration, and the geographical sorting of journalists has gutted local newspapers. Like the slow demise of print advertising itself, it is the sort of story that news organizations might be structurally designed to miss. The opposite of a sudden and shocking calamity exhaustively covered by every media organization, it is, rather, a thousand local disappearances, with nobody left to report on what has gone away.