I learned a few weeks ago that PC Magazine, a periodical to which I have long subscribed, will no longer be delivered to my door. The magazine has ceased printing. It will still be published, but only online. I'm not especially bothered. It's certainly a bit sad to lose a magazine that shaped my attitude towards computers to the extent that I'm blogging at my own website today. Still, I'm subscribed to other magazines; my mailbox won't be empty. Besides, I have to acknowledge that I get most of my computing knowledge online now anyway.
The cause of PC Magazine's transformation is simple, and though it might seem appropriate for a magazine about computers to go all-digital, the real reason has less to do with innovation than it does with cost. A digital publication is far less expensive to produce than an ink and paper one, and PC Magazine's parent company, Ziff Davis Media, declared bankruptcy last spring. The reasons cited were declining subscriptions and lost advertising revenue. This isn't just one isolated magazine publisher falling to the wayside, however. The whole print media industry seems to be in the midst of a dramatic transformation.
Take the Christian Science Monitor, a paper well known for its independent focus on international issues. The Monitor reached its one hundredth anniversary last year only to announce in October that is planning to cease daily publication this spring. A weekly edition of the newspaper will still be printed, but daily reports will only be available online after April 2009.
Consider also the Detroit Free Press, the nation's twentieth largest newspaper by circulation, which declared in December that it will cease home-delivery of its daily papers early this year. The daily will still be available at newsstands and online, but home deliveries will only be made on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Why is this happening? "Economics," answers a FAQ page at the paper's website. "Advertising, including classified, is down. Costs are up. We are changing our model in order to survive in a world that has changed."
A look at newspaper publishers' share prices shows how dire their economic situation is. The Detroit Free Press is published by Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company, which also owns the USA Today and Wisconsin papers like the Green Bay Press-Gazette and Appleton Post-Crescent. It's share price was $59.63 on January 9, 2007. Two years later, on January 9, 2009, it stood at $8.59—an 85.6% decline.
Lee Enterprises, an Iowa-based national conglomerate whose local papers include the Wisconsin State Journal and La Crosse Tribune, has seen its shares fall from $30.32 to $0.53 over the same time frame. That's a decline of 98.3%.
Similarly, shares in the McClatchy Company have dropped from $41.09 to $1.47 during this two-year span, a decline of 96.4%. McClatchy's newspapers around the country include the Miami Herald and Sacremento Bee.
Most strikingly, the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, declared bankruptcy this December. Only one year before, it had been purchased by investor Sam Zell for $34.00 per share—a total price tag then of $8.2 billion.
What's killing print media?
The Internet is, of course, often listed as the principal assassin. That's part of the reason why publishers are shifting their focus to the web now. My generation gets its news online, so we aren't subscribing to newspapers. Advertisers, looking to reach the most eyeballs, are shifting their spending towards the Internet. The result is a double-whammy for newspaper printers: both subscribers and advertisers are taking their attention elsewhere. It's all a bit silly on the advertising front—download the AdBlock Plus extension for Firefox like I have, and you'll never see one of those annoying Internet ads again. So much for reaching eyeballs. But I digress.
Many also blame the print media's downfall on the fact that, like real estate and finance, newspapers have recently gone through a bubble that's burst. In the past few years, many publishing conglomerates took advantage of easy credit to acquire more newspapers and expand, only to be struck by sweeping declines in their business and then by a credit-tightening financial crisis. Now these companies are collapsing under their own debt. The Tribune Company, for instance, went bankrupt largely because of it's purchase by Sam Zell in 2007. Zell's privatization of the company was funded by highly-leveraged debt, and after the credit crunch, that debt is simply no longer sustainable. Likewise, Lee Enterprises took on tremendous debt in 2005 to acquire Pulitzer, Inc., and it too is teetering on the brink of failure, as I've been reading lately at Waxing America. The McClatchy Company is also largely a victim of it's debt-funded acquisition of publisher Knight-Ridder in 2006.
In some ways, I'm not sure that this trouble for the aforementioned companies is a bad thing. Media-consolidation is something I'm firmly opposed to, and to see companies collapse because they've consolidated too quickly seems a rather just desert. What good is a local paper, after all, when its owned by a national chain from out of state? It's bad enough that every town's main street has turned into the same assemblage of Wal-Mart stores and McDonald's restaurants! To see city newspaper after city newspaper transform into the same bland blend of AP wires and syndicated features is the ultimate disgrace to local identity. If a city doesn't even own its own news, then what has it got?
More to the point, why would anyone subscribe to a local paper anymore when it isn't local? It's no wonder that people turn to the Internet for their news when their hometown paper just duplicates the same national feeds as news.yahoo.com, spruced with a few local updates of the most dispassionate variety. It's true that bloggers who try to cover the news are not usually professional journalists, and that certainly shows in their work. At the same time, these bloggers are not usually owned by a corporation from across the country either, and that shows too. The success of the Internet is not only because of its convenience and interactivity, but also because it is so often open and uncontrolled, enabling it to be far more independent than the national media.
I think it would be fitting for newspaper companies, if they must fail, to be brought down by their own overzealous expansion. I'd be thrilled if the result of all this was the breakup of conglomerates and a return to more locally owned papers. I would hate, however, for print media to disappear entirely. It's too important. What the Internet gains in freedom, it generally lacks in discipline. What it gains in convenience, it lacks in depth. Some bloggers break news stories, but many (like me) simply offer opinions on what real journalists have printed. Besides, Internet-access is still not universal, and web pages are certainly not renowned for longevity. To stop printing newspapers is to starve the poor of knowledge and to pillage the future of its history. We need printed newspapers and magazines. But it's equally clear that these publications must change if they are to survive.
What do you think?