Are you reading this in print or on the web?
With each passing year, publishers are becoming increasingly concerned with the answer to that question.
As more people choose to get their news by other means - be it radio, TV or the internet - newspaper circulations decrease across the country.
And the effects are astounding: Just Monday the McClatchy Company, which currently publishes 12 daily and 17 nondaily newspapers, announced the purchase of the 32 newspapers published by Knight Ridder, but, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, because they didn't want to hold onto papers in "slow growth" areas, the company will sell 12 of the papers they have just purchased, including the Inquirer itself.
McClatchy, whose publications include the Star Tribune in Minneapolis , Minn. , and The Sacramento Bee in Sacramento , Ca. - claiming a daily circulation total of 1.4 million and a Sunday circulation of 1.8 million - reported early last month that January circulation was down 5.2 percent from the same period last year. The Tribune Co., which publishes 11 daily newspapers - including Newsday, in New York , NY., and The Los Angeles Times, in Los Angeles , Ca. - reported that its circulation revenues for January 2006 were down 4.3 percent from the same period last year.
The declining numbers cause publishers to ask the question: Why is the printed word losing popularity?
Boston University College of Communication Associate Professor of Journalism Christopher Daly said it all comes down to the consumer's options.
"There is a lot of competition for the limited time people have available to read," Daly said in an email. "Cable TV, videos, computer games, the Web - none of these things existed during the heyday of print journalism."
Dante Chinni, senior associate at Journalism.org - a website run by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an association of journalists attempting to improve the standards of American journalism - said the mobile nature of today's society also has an effect.
"People are on the go a lot more now. There simply is less time to sit down with a paper than there once was." Chinni said in an email. "People graze from a variety of sources more."
Gary Weitman, vice president of communications and corporate relations for the Tribune Co., agreed that one of the problems facing newspapers is competition from other sources.
"Competition for audience is fierce and has never been more intense." Weitman said in an email. "But, while print readership is down, compared to other media like broadcast television, newspapers remain a very strong way of reaching a wide and diverse audience. More than 100 million people read a newspaper every Sunday."
Then, why the concern? A look at the circulation trends over the past two decades offers one answer.
According to circulation figures provided by the Newspaper Association of America, daily circulation reached a peak in 1984 at 63 million copies sold (morning and evening editions combined). Twenty years later the total was down to around 54 million copies - a loss of almost a million copies a year. This trend alone would be enough to worry newspapers, even if they were in an isolated and static industry, but with new forms of competition emerging the numbers become even more distressing.
At the same time, other media bases were coalescing into formidable adversaries. The internet has grown exponentially over the time frame considered, as has Cable TV and its 24-hour news networks - CNN, CNBC and Fox News, among others.
Chinni said he thinks changing attitudes toward consuming news pose bigger questions for the industry than a glut of sources.
"People don't go to one source anymore for news. They don't even really want to, I think. They want some reporting on zoning ordinances from their community paper and international news from the net," Chinni said.
Weitman agreed, saying the real edge newspapers have now is in local coverage.
"People have plenty of national options for news ... USA Today, NY Times, Wall St. Journal and television news," Weitman said. "But the options are far fewer for local news and the kind of in-depth reporting that local newspapers deliver. That is our advantage.
"As Mark Twain said, 'Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.' Newspapers will be around for a long time to come. That said, they will have to adapt to a changing marketplace," Weitman added. "They have to continue looking for ways to engage readers more and make the product more vital to them."
Daly said the decreasing circulation numbers show that the newspaper industry is one in transition.
"It may well be that in order to survive, newspapers must get out of the paper business." Daly said. "As it stands, newspapers have inherited a business model in which they are, in part, manufacturers.
"Every day, they must coordinate the movement of paper, ink, machinery, trucks and the people with the skills to handle all of these things in order to create a new 'product' on a 24-hour basis" Daly continued. "That is, a business that has essentially nothing to do with the task of gathering information, verifying it and disseminating it.
"So, they may be better off to lose the paper and keep the news."
Chinni agreed with Daly, saying the future of the industry may be a simplified business model.
"The net is the future for newspapers and they are only starting to figure that out. They have to have a big presence online to survive," Chinni said. "The real question of the web is, will it provide an economic model that will generate enough revenue for newspapers to pay their reporting staffs?
"A room full of reporters costs money, newspapers have to see if online revenues can cover those costs. If not, staff will shrink and ultimately the content in those papers will suffer."
Christopher O'Connor, senior vice president and group account director at Media Planning Group, a media and marketing communications and planning and buying agency, said the future for newspapers and their internet sites is now.
"I would expand [the internet as the future for newspapers] to digital [sources]," O'Connor said, "It's more than the internet, it's your handheld phone, your PDA."
Weitman said the internet is a definite concern to Tribune Co. - which holds several "complimentary" internet interests, such as Topix.net, ShopLocal.com and CareerBuilder.com, which serve as new revenue streams and help bolster the company's newspaper business - mainly because of their popularity among young people.
"The internet is another form of competition and has definitely changed the way people expect to get their news," Weitman said. "But, just as people predicted that radio would be the end of newspapers, and TV the end of radio and newspapers, the media industry will continue evolving.
"In fact, the internet is the fastest growing segment of our business right now," Weitman continued. "Revenues were up more than 40 percent in 2005. It is a small segment of our business, but growing fast."
Internet numbers are stronger than ever, according to research done by Nielson//NetRatings on behalf of the Newspaper Association of America. A report released in February showed that, with home and work internet usage combined, more than 55 million people viewed newspaper websites in November 2005. That number was up 30 percent from the same period the year prior.
The Wall Street Journal Online - one of the few subscription-based newspaper websites - has over 750,000 paid subscribers (as of the fourth quarter 2005), up 8 percent from the same period in 2004, as well as more than 175,000 unique visitors to the website each business day, according to data on the website for Dow Jones and Co., publisher of the Wall Street Journal and Barron's.
Daly said while newspapers are starting to find ways of converting online viewers into online subscribers, he doubted that users accustomed to free access would be eager to begin paying for their online news, and suggested that fees for online access might have to begin as small yearly or minimal per-page charges.
"Considered as a business, newspapers have indeed suffered from the internet - just as they have suffered at the hands of radio, magazines and TV," Daly said. "A huge problem is the leakage of classified advertising. A related problem is the rise of sites like [Craigslist.com] that aggregate information."
Craigslist, an online forum for free classified ads that generates more than 3 billion page views from its more than 10 million users per month, is diverting substantial revenue from newspapers and the websites they run. By offering listings for no charge, Craigslist steals advertisers who would normally fill the classified sections of newspapers and provide needed revenue for those publications.
This loss of revenue forces newspaper publishers to rely more heavily on advertising and subscription income, and intensifies concern raised by declining readership numbers in those areas. It also means that, as internet usage increases and newspaper site click-throughs rise, publishers must both look for better ways of developing online advertisements and then find new ways to determine rates for those ads.
Weitman pointed to Tribune Co.'s Topix.net as an example of the company's continued efforts to increase its online business. Topix.net is a site designed to streamline online news-seeking, combining thousands of stories from hundreds of sources into specific categories such as Top Stories, Local , US and Sports.
"We continue developing online advertising for our newspaper websites," Weitman said, "and it is a growing portion of our business. We still are developing hyper-targeting as a way of reaching more narrowly-defined segments of our market, or a specific demographic."
O'Connor said targeting an advertisement at a specific demographic is actually a lot easier on the Web, but the problem in online advertising today is in the ads themselves.
"If you go to a site now what do you see? Banners and pop-ups and different boxes," O'Connor said, "it's just annoying. You may recognize a logo but that's it, you aren't going to go and click on that box and see more about that ad.
"Advertisers need to be more creative and find ways to engage the customer so that there is some interaction between the ad and the consumer," O'Connor added.
Daly said he hadn't seen a business model yet that did more than tap into online advertising, but that it might be possible to increase revenues.
"It seems to me that Google has proven that online ads can be precisely targeted and that it's possible to make vast amounts of money in the online information business," Daly said.
Chinni said he thought what users typically view online could eventually be used to help target ads.
"Someone who spends a lot of time clicking through entertainment pages might get more ads for films or clubs," Chinni said. "Sports readers could get sports bars. These groups aren't geographic, of course, and that presents a problem. But interest group targeting is not without appeal for advertisers."
O'Connor echoed Chinni's statement, saying that as agencies become more specific, narrowing their focus onto specific demographics and delivering ads that apply to them, both the agencies themselves and newspapers will have to find better ways to identify those groups and how to best deliver the ads to those groups.
"It's all about who you are trying to attract," O'Connor said. "Advertisers have to ask themselves, 'Is [my ad] appropriate for who I'm targeting?' and the newspapers have to ask 'Is this portal appropriate for the advertisers I'm trying to attract?'"
Whether newspapers will be able to fully tap the revenue streams represented by the internet remains to be seen, but what is sure is that while overall circulations are down, newspapers are not going anywhere anytime soon.
"The numbers are complicated," Chinni said. "Not everyone's readership and circulation is down. The big losers right now are the metro dailies. The big national papers -NY Times, LA Times, USA Today - aren't losing if you go by recent reports. At the same time very local papers are doing well too."
O'Connor said that while digital media is undoubtedly the future, and present, of the newspaper industry, he didn't think that necessarily means the end of the printed word.
"There's always room for the written word," he said. "It's always good to have something in your hand, be it newspaper or magazine, and nothing is going to replace that."
Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of Fox News Corp., summed up the problem in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 2005: "I do not underestimate the tests before us. We may never become true digital natives, but we can and must begin to assimilate to their culture and way of thinking.
"It is a monumental, once-in-a-generation opportunity, but it is also an exciting one, because if we're successful, our industry has the potential to reshape itself, and to be healthier than ever before."
© Copyright 2007 The Daily Free Press