By Carl HoweLast week, The New York Times reported that nationally, newspaper circulation has fallen sharply by an average of 2.8 percent. As a subscriber to three of the top newspapers (yes, true confession, I am a newspaper junkie), I am shocked, shocked I say, to witness such a phenomenon. And worse, the newspapers that showed circulation increases were such beacons of media quality as the New York Daily News and the New York Post. What is the world coming to?
Well, what we're really seeing is a phenomenon we noted earlier this year: everyone is competing for a fixed quantity of consumer attention span -- and newspapers largely are losing. Twenty years ago, you could choose among newspapers, TV, and radio for your local news. Today, those three media types are competing with a wealth of other media types including Web sites, email newsletters, and podcasts. Worse, most of the new media types are free. Is it any wonder than companies that ask you for a $250 a year subscription for day-old news are losing circulation?
Now as I noted in my prior piece, this isn't fatal. Every major metropolitan area is sure to retain at least one newspaper. Why? Because newspapers work especially well as a targeted local advertising medium. If I'm a Boston-area furniture store, it's hard to beat an ad in the magazine section of the Boston Globe for effectiveness in getting people to visit my store. And it will be decades before anything can replace the local newspaper as a way to sell cars to consumers. But a large metropolitan area doesn't necessarily need more than one newspaper for advertising; in fact, one newspaper makes it a better marketing medium.
Which simply means that newspapers are headed back toward a model of branded content, as shown in the graphic above. As the newspaper businesses sort themselves out into the quick and the dead, those that survive will work hard to establish strong brands to attract advertising dollars. And those survivors will pay for that branded content. But in the midst of today's tyranny of too much content -- made even more dramatic as the Internet passed 100 million Web sites last week -- it may take years before this business model stabilizes. And in the meantime, we'll just have to get used to smaller newspaper circulations and fewer brands to choose from.
But think of it this way. Fewer newspapers means less paper in your recycling bin. Maybe we can claim that the shakeout of the newspaper industry is actually a way to improve the environment.