Paper cuts sting, but will they heal over time?

A few of us Ketner Groupies recently attended a PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) luncheon and got to meet three of Austin’s most notable media professionals. Patti Smith, general manager and president of KVUE TV, Debbie Hiott, the managing editor of the Austin American Statesman, and Susanna Hamner, a freelance journalist that frequently writes for the New York Times, discussed the evolution of media in a changing world (specifically in a world where social media has become a viral phenomenon for spreading breaking news, celebrity gossip and saucy rumors). As we debated the different ways social media displaces traditional media, the conversation quickly turned to the hardships that have been plaguing print media for the last couple of years.

According to Paper Cuts, a website tracking the status of the newspaper industry, 175 newspapers have shut down or stopped printing since 2007, including the Rocky Mountain News, who closed its doors after 150 years, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who now exists only online after 146 years of printing. Another 30,146+ newspaper jobs have been cut since 2007 and industry experts predict that many more will disappear by the end of 2009.

Why are newspapers having such difficulty staying afloat? Among other things, their audience is changing. The younger generations have come to expect their news instantly – at the click of a button. With high-speed internet connections and mobile internet devices, people can browse news anywhere at any time and usually for “free.” Startlingly, a Pew Research Center report earlier this year found that only one-third of Americans that were polled said they would “miss” newspapers if they disappeared completely. And if newspapers move to online only and charge subscription fees to view content, will these people pay the $80/year the Wall Street Journal charges?

This begs the question, “How are newspapers evolving to meet the challenges of today’s instantaneous gratification-craving, media hungry [cost conscious] readers?” They certainly can’t rely on traditional advertising and subscriptions to sustain the paper any longer and cutting staff may only cause quality of content disparities. It’s a known fact that if you lose your readers, you’ll lose your advertisers, so how will today’s newspapers survive?

It is my opinion that, as in any recession, the strongest will survive. In simple economics, a struggling economy will eliminate businesses that were too weak to survive and allow best practices to prevail and serve as models for existing and future endeavors. CNN’s Stephanie Chen noted in an article that many industry analysts expect national publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times will survive. Analysts believe that the largest papers may even benefit from the shrinking industry and gain market share because of their wide penetration.

What have we learned from this? We’re living in an interesting era. An era where innovation alone isn’t enough, but constant and rapid innovation is required to keep up with the pace of today’s consumers. I know I’ll be watching to see what becomes of one of the oldest forms of our country’s free press and I hope that everything settles on some new, happy medium.