Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Back to Basics: Should Newspapers Abandon Digital?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Back to Basics: Should Newspapers Abandon Digital?

Article excerpt

Newspapers are so bad at digital publishing that they should just give up and focus on print.

That's the bracing thesis of a recently published mini-book from journalism professor H. Iris Chyi of the University of Texas, who likens what she calls the "inferior quality" of online newspaper offerings to the ramen noodles gobbled by many a starving student. Her publication is titled "Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers' Digital Struggles Toward Inferiority" and can be found at tinyurl.com/pphdxp5.

Observing that newspapers have been experimenting with "new media" for the better part of two decades, Chyi marshals a raft of research to conclude "the performance of their digital products has fallen short of expectations."

She urges publishers to "acknowledge that digital is not (their) forte" and abandon the "digital first, print last" strategy that has been widely adopted in the business.

"That is not to say that you don't need to offer any digital product," she adds, but "one may conclude that it is easier for newspapers to preserve the print edition than to sell digital products."

Newspapers certainly have fallen short of expectations in the digital realm. Although interactive newspaper ad revenues have roughly tripled since $1.3 billion in 2003, the over-all digital advertising market has soared by more than sixfold since then.

But doubling down on print hardly seems to be a foresighted strategy when readers and advertisers increasingly are flocking to the digital media. We'll get back to this in a moment. First, here's Chyi's take on where the industry went wrong:

"In retrospect, most U.S. newspapers outsourced their homework to business consultants such as Clayton M. Christensen, whose disruptive technology thesis served as the theoretical foundation behind the newspaper industry's technology-driven approach. The problem is that most assumptions on the all-digital future have no empirical support. As a result, during nearly 20 years of trial and error, bad decisions were made, unwise strategies adopted, audiences misunderstood and product quality deteriorated."

Pointing to research showing that people who like to read newspaper-y kinds of articles will pay substantial sums to spend quality time with print, Chyi argues that the digital version of the typical newspaper is "outperformed by its print counterpart in terms of usage, preference and paying intent."

And she is right. Any publisher will tell you that print is more profitable that pixels.

The problem with ditching digital is that the number of readers and advertisers who value print has been steadily shrinking--and likely will continue to do so, owing to these seemingly irreversible market phenomena:

Tumbling print circulation. …

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