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Is Print Media Really Dead?

If you are reading this the old-fashioned way, i.e., grasping the corners of thinly flattened leaves of paper pulp while your thumbs and forefingers stain with soy-based black ink, you are part of a dwindling breed. Or, are you? For nearly 600 years commercial interests have been mass-producing everything from newspapers to books and flyers using the printing press. The result is the industry simply called “print media.”

Over the last decade, however, article after article (ironically published in the “print media” itself) has marked the final days of this 600-year tradition. Certainly, the internet has dramatically changed the way we gather our information. And, the stark numbers that track declining newspaper readership don’t lie. It’s true that fewer people sit still long enough to read the morning paper like they did even ten years ago.

But, does this all add up to the “death of print media?” The answer is partly “yes” to be sure. But, it is also partly “no.” And, that is the part I’d like to focus on this month.

The first truth is that print media, aka newspapers and magazines, started to decline with the popularization of radio and, later, television. If we are really going to explore the Golden Era of Print, we would need to go back almost a century when virtually all news, information, and popular culture were conducted through the big city dailies and national magazines. In fact, the TV earned its nickname – the Idiot Box – because, for many, it signaled the end of a literate society back in 1952. (So, move over YouTube!)

There is also the nostalgia garnered for that Lone Paperboy of yesteryear, an American icon that disappeared when grown men in trucks started delivering papers in the 1980s, thus replacing the 13-year-old on his bicycle. Sure, that Rockwellian piece of Americana is gone for good in all but the smallest of towns. But, the Lone Paperboy is almost a grandpa by now anyway.

So, what really has happened to prompt all of the pundits to double-down on the “death of print”?

What has changed is less about the readership and more about the ways in which newspapers generate revenue and maintain their profit margins. The scenario goes something like this: Physical newspaper readership is down about 30% in the last ten years. When a paper operates at a profit margin that’s less than 10% (as most businesses do), those numbers are definitely going to send a paper into the red.

So, why not simply scoop up the online readership, you ask. Well, the physical web page doesn’t lend itself to advertising space like the old paper page did. Sure, you can run a couple of banners across your web pages, even annoy your readers with pop-ups. But, you can’t run full-page, half-page, and double-truck ads in cyberspace like you did in the newspapers of yore. To put it into “ad speak,” cyberspace doesn’t provide the advertising platform that traditional print did.

But, this hardly means that print media is dead. In fact, very reputable, focused newspapers like the Wall Street Journal have actually increased readership since 2002. Of course, this involves utilizing hybrid tactics that involve both traditional print and online circulation. But, who says that we can’t evolve, right?

Looking at the numbers again, we need to acknowledge that print media is 70% intact, after its 30% drop from a decade ago. Now, in my book, 70% of something isn’t exactly dead. For instance, that 13-year-old paperboy I mentioned has about 70% of his life left to live. (I wish I had 70% of my days in front of me!)

It should be noted that people are still flocking to many Sunday editions for the coupons, which are a form of the print advertising I mentioned earlier. Although anything is possible, it’s very difficult for cyberspace to duplicate all of the ads and coupons that a Sunday newspaper can offer. (I’d definitely prefer to buy a Sunday paper than stand next to my printer all day.)

In addition, the specialty magazine market is booming. (Okay, “booming” may be a strong word, especially while fording the Great Recession.) But, magazines on virtually every subject-niche are popping up like never before. (Because of the cost of printing, this phenomenon would have been impossible 30, 40, or 50 years ago.) So, while many of the dinosaur dailies may be dying, grass roots publishing has been given new life.

I say all of this while fully acknowledging that “print media” is definitely changing (not to be confused with dying). Sure, we may be reading all of our newspapers from our iPads soon. (Will we really miss those ink smudges on our fingers and faces?) But, that’s okay. At least we’re reading. And, that’s a lot better than sitting in front of the Idiot Box watching cartoons like our parents did back in the good ol’ days.

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