For much of the nearly two years that I served as an executive editor for a shifting group of small Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I often asked myself: Which newspapers will survive? Trust me, it wasn’t an idle thought experiment. That’s the question I decided to try to answer in a recent piece for The Media Briefing in the UK.
The newspapers I oversaw were actually doing pretty well with growing reach and revenue. However, I know that the picture wasn’t so sunny across much of the industry.
Since my job as executive editor of a group of small newspapers in Wisconsin was eliminated in early October, it seems like a week hasn’t gone by when there hasn’t been announcements of cuts in newspapers – Tribune Publishing (almost 10 percent of its workforce is gone in 2015, the Boston Globe, swingeing cuts in Pittsburgh and Philly. It is pretty bloody out there, and we’re entering a final convulsion of consolidation in the industry as big groups like Gannett try to scale their way to compete with the big digital platform players.
Personally, I believe the next three to five years will see a major shakeout in English language media. Simply put, there is too much content chasing a finite amount of attention and advertising. Market corrections almost always overshoot, and this correction has been a while in coming so I expect that this will be bloody and brutal. And newspapers aren’t the only media that will suffer. As we’ve seen in the last month, premium cable sports giant ESPN and even early digital publishers like Gawker are having to retrench and retool. But print was in the vanguard of media to suffer, only really trailing music in terms of digital disruption. This leads me to the question: Which newspapers will survive?
Simply put, quite a few won’t. However, I think that some newspapers will survive, and print will still be a pretty significant part of their business, although digital will drive a lot of their growth. I agree with John Stackhouse, the former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail in Canada, newspapers (and newspaper groups) will survive if they are either huge or small. The middle is getting clobbered, and that includes a lot of major metro and mid-size papers in the US.
The challenge for any newspaper group is that while on aggregate they fare pretty well in terms of scale, even when traffic from all of their properties are put together, they simply don’t reach the scale that the major digital platform players do. According to ComScore’s list of Top 50 Digital Media Properties for October 2015, Gannett, with the highest traffic of any US newspaper publisher, came in at number 17, just ahead of eBay. That’s not too shabby. But Gannett’s more than 101 m unique visitors were only 41 percent of Google’s uniques for the same month. That shows the challenge that most media companies are facing.
The major digital platforms are playing an entirely different game. When you look at Google and Facebook, they have all the advantages of massive scale and laser-guided ad targeting without the cost of running a large network of newspapers. Sure, they have their overheads, but they do not compare with the cost of running the 20th Century industrial legacy that is involved with a national newspaper group. And if you’re the Guardian or the New York Times, and, let’s throw a newly resurgent Washington Post, in the mix, you can have national reach without the expense of a local footprint.
For newspaper survival, I really think that small is beautiful. They are still rooted in their communities, but beyond good will, in Sheboygan and Manitowoc, two of the newspapers I oversaw as an executive editor, we didn’t have any local TV competition. They only came when we had a Rob Ford-esque mayor, had an odd crime or needed some snowstorm pictures.
So, size does matter but so does the economic health of the community. If your community is on the economic rocks, it makes it very difficult for a newspaper to survive. Sheboygan County is rocking it economically. It had the third lowest unemployment of any county in Wisconsin in September, reaching a 15-year low, and it has major national and multinational companies headquartered here.
There is a lot of opportunity in community publishing that serves communities like Sheboygan. Not only do I think that newspapers and their digital services will survive in the Sheboygans across the country, if I were an investor, that is where I’d be putting my money.