Kill it or keep it

4434980725_5559f2594e_zWe are now witnessing the climactic, if not final, chapter in the story of print: Kill it vs. Keep it. Feeding tube in or out. Short term with print, or long term without it. It’s not a new discussion; the demise of print has long been foretold. There is now, however, meaningful  evidence of publishers placing their final bets.

Kill it:

Exhibit A, of course, is Advance Publications, which in 2009 cut back the printing of its Ann Arbor News to two days per week. Earlier this year, Advance reduced its flagship New Orleans Times-Picayune to three days, did the same to its three papers in Alabama, and announced it’ll do likewise at its Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News and Syracuse, N.Y., Post-Standard. All signs point to a similar move in 2013 at Advance’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the betting window is open at the Oregonian in Portland.

“If you look at the trend lines for print, seven-day-a-week American newspaper journalism, it’s hard to project a long-term future for that.” Editor James O’Byrne

We all realize that, at some point, daily print will go away. Is Advance simply ahead of the pack in leading the way, or has it taken a terrible misstep?

Ken Doctor

Publishers who have followed suit, either reducing print frequency or abandoning ink and paper entirely, range from the Oregon Daily Herald, a college paper; to The Sporting News (a monument to the romance of print if ever there was one); to Newsweek; to Postmedia’s string of Canadian dailies. Even for one New York weekly, printing one day a week is too much.

Though he has no chips of his own in the print game, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen says the New York Times should abandon print.

Keep it:

The biggest white knight is Warren Buffett, who bought a bushel of local papers earlier this year and proclaimed he’s bullish on the printed newspaper.

Boston investor Aaron Kushner bought the remnants of Freedom Communications this year to claim its jewel, the Orange County Register, and promptly went on a spending spree, hiring dozens of journalists and adding pages to the paper. The Register, populated by some very good journalists whom I admire, is a newspaper time machine, an actual, living newsroom circa 1999.

“I’ve always felt that newspapers were important and valuable”

Aaron Kushner

Kushner quickly spun off the Colorado Springs Gazette, my alma mater and a pickup in his purchase of the Register, to Clarity Media, one of the many enterprises orbiting Denver’s Phil Anschutz. The Clarity game plan: cautiously rebuild the newsroom, and restore section fronts and pages to a print edition that had been thinned out by the pre-Kushner ownership.

You might include the Baton Rouge Advocate in this group because of its push into New Orleans to scoop up former Times-Picayune subscribers, but it strikes me as a market-share play, not a baseline decision on the sustainability of printed news. And who knows what big spender Doug Manchester really thinks about the future of the printed newspaper beyond its ability to advance his interests.

There will be continued investment in newspapers in 2013, when Tribune Co. properties emerge from Chapter 11 and go up for auction. Kushner has said he’ll sniff the Los Angeles Times prospectus, and Buffett presumably will look over some of Tribune’s smaller, local titles. Money will change hands in 2013; but the longer-term plans for former Tribune newspapers — retreat from print, or double down on it — aren’t known yet.

Likely there will be winners and losers among both the kill-it and keep-it players. Some of the keepers will add online paywalls. I keep waiting for Digital First Media to join the killers even as they keep their websites free to users, in defiance of the paywall proliferation everywhere else. (UPDATE: DFM joins the killers, partly, by announcing on Jan. 16 it will cut back printing of its Oneida (N.Y.) Daily Dispatch to three days per week).  Everyone is trying everything, all at once.

But two distinct camps, with fundamentally different views of the long-term viability of the printed newspaper, finally are emerging. Let’s see what happens when the results start to come in.

AFFIRMATION, Jan. 31: The always-interesting Ken Doctor does the numbers nicely on Kushner and the Orange County Register over at the Nieman Journalism Lab, and comes to a similar conclusion: “We have the Advance labs and the Register labs.”

Newspaper image: Flickr/Karen Mardahl;used under Creative Commons license

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