When will printed newspapers die? It’s a question that has hung over newsrooms for so long that some of the people asking it have themselves shuffled off this mortal coil without receiving a satisfactory answer.
Many of the predictions now look over-pessimistic. The website newspaperdeathwatch.com, set up in 2007 as a sort of rip.ie for the industry, is now defunct. When futurologist Ross Dawson published his "newspaper extinction timeline" in 2010, he predicted that newspapers would cease to exist in the UK in 2019, in Canada and Norway in 2020 and in Australia in 2022. Wrong, wrong and, barring some unforeseen Australian cataclysm in the next six months, wrong again. (Irish papers, Dawson predicted, would hang on grimly for a few more years until they finally expired in 2027.)
Despite the fact that newspapers have stubbornly refused to follow the script set out by these Cassandras, influential people continue to guesstimate print's life expectancy, albeit more cautiously. Former New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson recently said he doesn't expect the newspaper to exist in physical form in 20 years' time.
“[Print media] as a means of conveyance for information, and probably, for news, it’s of limited value in the future,” he said. “Why? Because it doesn’t update, it’s really bad for the environment, it’s a pain printing it and physically distributing it when everyone’s got a smartphone.” He added the crucial point that “the advertising, which made it such a good business for a century and a half, is going away”.
In the US, it is true, the sense of a terminal crisis is deeper. Once-powerful big-city newspapers have been reduced to empty shells by vampire hedge funds whose only interest lies in sweating the assets until there’s nothing left but a zombie company. The dire situation in the US is masked by the success of the New York Times and Washington Post in building themselves into global digital media giants.
The relative robustness of weekend sales, along with the growth of digital subscriptions, has opened up the possibility of a hybrid model bridging the gap between the pre-digital past and the post-print future
But it’s also true that the fundamental existential challenge has not gone away anywhere. Far from it. There’s a reason why newspaper circulation numbers in Ireland are no longer publicly released; the grim drip-drip of inexorable year-on-year decline has been deemed unhelpful to the cause. But in parallel with that deliberate de-escalation of a bleak narrative, the industry has devised a plausible story of survival that it can tell to itself and to others, and that story includes – up to a point – print.
On RTÉ radio last week Peter Vandermeersch, publisher of the newly rebranded Mediahuis Ireland (formerly Independent News and Media), was asked when his company was likely to make the decision that the time had come to stop printing. Pointing to the continuing healthy sales of the Irish Independent's Saturday edition, he said: "we think, sooner or later, maybe five, maybe seven, maybe 12 years, we go to a system here in Ireland where we have very big and important Saturday and Sunday papers in print, combined with digital during the week. That's basically the whole strategy of the company, to prepare for that future."
Vandermeersch also made the point that what ultimately mattered was not the format but the journalism. But the journalism can only survive if it has an economically viable platform. For Mediahuis, as for other other companies, the relative robustness of weekend sales, along with the growth of digital subscriptions, has opened up the possibility of a hybrid model bridging the gap between the pre-digital past and the post-print future. It’s an attractive option which avoids the cliff-edge moment of truth involved in stopping print overnight (a leap some newspapers around the world have taken, with very mixed results), while recognising that many readers still value and enjoy the more leisurely and engaged experience offered by a physical newspaper at the right time of the week. Diehard daily print readers will not be happy, of course, but the Monday to Friday figures tell their own unpalatable and unavoidable truth.
What, then, of these weekly printed newspapers? Will they change to accommodate the new landscape? The classic multi-section weekend newspaper as we now know it is a product of a very different age, when new colour printing presses and cost-saving production software drove greater advertising revenues and increased pagination. Do all of those imperatives still apply or should the editorial mix change? And is there any reason, other than tradition, why a standalone weekly should have to wait for Saturday or Sunday mornings (Germany’s Die Zeit publishes on a Thursday)? There’s surely an opportunity here for an imaginative rethink of what a weekly printed newspaper could look like in a largely post-print world.