Myth: Newspapers are washed up

May 17, 2010

By Margaret Sullivan, Editor, The Buffalo (N.Y.) News

The death watch began in March, 2009. That was when – in the midst of some extraordinarily difficult times for newspapers — Time Magazine published its scary-sounding list: The 10 Most Endangered Newspapers in America.

Of the top 50 papers in the U.S., the magazine speculated, at least eight would go out of business in the next 18 months. Big names were on the list: The Boston Globe, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Miami Herald and others.

As the 18-month mark approaches, Time is not exactly batting 1.000. More like zero.

The apparently well-accepted belief that newspapers are closing their doors en masse is simply not true.

Of the roughly 1,400 American dailies, 11 have gone out of business in the past two years. That’s well under one percent. And among those that did fold, a number were in cities with more than one major paper. The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for example, stopped print publication – but, significantly, both of them were in markets with daily newspaper competition.

What’s more, newspaper profit margins, after falling for many years, may actually improve this year, according to a new J.P. Morgan analysis, as revenue declines moderate and newspaper companies reap the results of their cost-cutting.

Perhaps the magazine had the timetable right – something would happen to newspapers in the next year or so – but the story wrong: Rather than going out of business, many newspapers are beginning to right themselves.

That’s not to say that all is rosy in newspaper land.

Advertising revenue continues to be down. Print circulation is, too – with the problem especially acute among the young.

In an e-mail exchange last year, New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick offered me his take: “My sons, who are in their teens, look at the Sunday paper outside the door as if a mattress had inexplicably landed there from heaven. To them, it’s a strange and gigantic thing, but they also have a hunger for news online. In that hunger is the hope that we’re not in the midst of a death of newspapers so much as a transformation.”

Meanwhile, though, that change in reading habits by young and old alike drives down circulation revenue.

And newspapers remain expensive to operate. Newsprint is costly; printing presses require production crews; delivery trucks need drivers; news gathering requires professional reporters and editors.

However — and this is a big “however” — newspapers still have a lot going for them. As sources of news and information, especially in the role of government watchdogs, they continue to outshine Web and broadcast outlets.

They also still have considerable strengths as businesses. Newspapers remain a strong way to deliver an advertising message, especially now that they have an online presence to augment print. Last year alone, according to the Newspaper Association of America, newspapers took in $27 billion in advertising revenue – down significantly, of course, from previous years but still enough to make most of them solidly profitable despite their high costs.

In an age of media fragmentation, newspapers continue to reach a mass market, and a print ad can pack a powerful punch. In many regional markets, newspapers remain the go-to place for advertisers such as department stores, car dealerships and supermarkets.

What does this all mean for the newspaper you are holding in your hands — or reading on a screen?

No one is certain. What we are certain about is our mission, which must be defended at all costs. Newspapers continue to be the best source for news and enterprise journalism in our region. We remain committed to investigative journalism and rigorous reporting.

To do so means staying viable as businesses. We’re doing that by continuing to reinvent ourselves as a broad-based media companies and Internet destinations. Despite the headwinds we’ll get there. We simply must. For, in Remnick’s words, “the death of newspapers — especially the best of them, the most aggressive and ambitious — would diminish the republic beyond measure.”

Margaret Sullivan, Editor, The Buffalo (N.Y.) News