Retreating back to print newspapers isn’t just a bad idea; it’s institutional suicide

Retreating back to print newspapers isn’t just a bad idea; it’s institutional suicide

Let me come out and say this right at the top: I’m an unabashed fan of legendary media columnist Jack Shafer.

I started reading him religiously about a decade ago. Shafer, then at Slate, was one of the few of his ilk willing to call bullshit on that most hallowed of newspaper traditions: the bogus trend.

Anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom knows what that means. There’s an old joke that goes something like this: How do journalists count? One, two … trend. Give a reporter three anecdotes and you’ll have a 1,200 word trend story by 5 pm.

Sadly, it’s all too true, and Shafer had a knack for spotting these pieces. The first I remember distinctly was a column taking The New York Times (my then employer) to task for linking the country’s economic woes to a supposed spike in shoplifting arrests.

Instead of relying on a handful of anecdotes or “fudgey statistics,” Shafer actually did what the reporter should have: He turned to FBI crime statistics. And, surprise surprise, there was no increase in such crimes at all. In fact, the numbers showed a half-decade of decline.

“As fudgey statistics go, this one is pure Betty Crocker,” Shafer wrote.

Boom! How could you not be a fan?

There’s one topic about which Shafer, now at Politico, seems willing to accept just about any amount of bogus you want to shovel his way: print newspapers — specifically, the future thereof. He’s written two widely read and shared columns in the recent past suggesting that print newspapers aren’t as doomed as we think they are.

News organizations, Shafer wrote last year, might have made a “colossal mistake” by investing so much in digital, or by investing at all. His column was based on research conducted by H. Iris Chyi at the University of Texas, and was filled with so many cherry-picked numbers and dubious conclusions it’s hard to know even where to begin.

Steve Buttry, Ben Thompson among many others have written extensively about Shafer’s piece, so I don’t feel the need to rehash it here. I actually thought that was pretty much the end of it. Until, that is, Shafer’s latest piece started buzzing around the internet last week, this one based on a recent study by Neil Thurman, a professor of communications at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

One column, two … I think I’m spotting a trend.

Look, I’ll give Shafer credit for admitting his bias up front. The studies, he wrote, butter the “toasty feelings” he has for print. Totally understandable. How can any journalist of a certain age (present company included) not share similar pangs of nostalgia and loss witnessing what the Internet era has wrought on the great newspapers of America? Nothing wrong with that, and right there with you.

I get off the boat — and quickly — when Shafer starts to draw actual, actionable conclusions from these studies. Chyi and Thurman, he writes, provide “fresh ammo to the debate about print’s future,” and suggest newspapers should “rethink resources they’ve allocated to online editions.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, I can’t think of advice more destructive to an industry already hanging on by a thread. Any newspaper executive who takes guidance from this work does so at his or her peril. (Thankfully, I suspect very few will.)

Before I get into why Thurman’s research is so problematic, let me briefly explain the work itself. In broad strokes, he shows that U.K. readers spend, in aggregate, vastly more time with print newspapers than they do with those same newspapers’ digital properties: apps and web. His data shows that roughly 88 percent of the total time U.K. readers devote to national news brands is spent with print.

There are loads of charts and graphs showing huge numbers calculated out to the tens of billions. It is all very scholarly, with a long and complex methodology.

This is academic work written for an academic audience. There are people far more qualified than I to say how valid or invalid Thurman’s results are, and no doubt they will. What’s that old Woody Allen joke? Academics are like the Mafia: They only kill their own.

Still, some of the datasets Thurman relies on to generate his enormous numbers make me a little uneasy. Anyone who has spent time with comScore data knows how squishy it can be. The U.K. National Readership Survey, another core dataset in Thurman’s analysis, is based on survey data, which Thurman concedes could “over- or under-estimate the time they spend with printed newspapers.”

I have no idea which, but I do remember the day back 20-plus years ago one of our circulation directors was explaining to me how our 50,000-circulation daily magically reached over 125,000 people. It was based on survey data showing that 2.5 people read each issue of the paper per day —data very similar to the surveys Thurman’s research relies on.

I also remember the stacks of unsold copies that would come back to the building each day, and the myriad tricks publishers would employ to goose circulation statistics during audits. Needless to say, that 125,000 number felt fudgey to me then, and it feels fudgey to me now.

Luckily I don’t have to question Thurman’s data or results to know that the conclusions being drawn from it are deeply misleading at best, and quite dangerous at worst. Even if every number in the study is 100 percent correct, every word of his research unimpeachable, the conclusions he and Shafer draw from it are simply wrong.

Well, not wrong exactly. More, beside the point.

The core problem with Thurman’s analysis is that it’s utterly irrelevant to the business of keeping the lights on in U.S. newsrooms. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous distraction that could give aid and comfort to those in newsrooms today — you know who you are —who still, in the year 2017, actively question the need for radical digital transformation.

That newspapers continue to draw significant — perhaps the majority — of readers’ aggregated time and attention isn’t all that surprising. That anyone would believe that has anything to do with how newspapers make money is quite surprising indeed.

The primary driver of print revenue has traditionally been advertisers who buy based on the newspapers’ ability to reach an audience they wish to reach. And by every measure, I’m sorry to say, newspapers are less and less effective at delivering that audience than the alternatives — principally Facebook and Google, which are vacuuming up more and more ad dollars that once flowed to print.

More to Thurman’s analysis, ads in newspapers aren’t sold based on time spent. It’s just not a thing. Neither is it a thing for digital, although some news organizations, most prominently the Financial Times, have been trying to change that. The FT has had some success introducing time-based ad campaigns, but these efforts so far amount to a cork bobbing in the ever-widening river of ad money flowing to Google and Facebook.

A possible response to this might be, “Well, maybe newspaper companies should be making the case to brands and agencies on the basis of time spent.” The thing is, they have. For years. And how has that worked out? Print newspaper advertising has been declining now for more than a decade in the U.S. — and this during relatively good economic times. In 2015, the industry saw the largest dip in overall ad revenue — print and digital — since the recession years of 2008 and 2009, largely because advertisers are fleeing from print.

Even The New York Times, the gold standard of print quality and digital innovation, is struggling. In the company’s latest quarterly report, print advertising declined by a staggering 20 percent, which followed a 19 percent decline in the previous quarter. If The New York Times can’t succeed in making print advertising work, what does that portend for the rest of the industry?

Thurman’s work is interesting but hardly a template for financial success. He ignores completely the core issues facing the industry today — for example, the generational flight from newspapers. No amount of nostalgia, wishful thinking or denial can change the fact that you couldn’t pay an 18-to-24-year-old to pick up a printed newspaper today, much less ask them to shell out the $1.50 to $2.50 at a newsstand (to the extent that they even exist anymore). Subscribe? You have to be kidding me.

If anything, the problem is a lack of investment and innovation on the digital side of the shop, that most newsrooms (even The Times’) are still dominated by print. The industry continues to pat itself on the back for small, incremental steps toward digital transformation when we need something far more radical.

“OK smartypants, then what’s the answer?”, you might be thinking about now. The truth is, I have no idea. Maybe it is a combination of digital subscriptions and radical cost-cutting. Maybe it’s a vertical strategy, something that looks like Vox Media. Maybe we should remove the print distraction and spin all print-related operations off, sort of the way newspapers did decades ago when they launched their digital operation. I really don’t know.

In 2008, Clay Shirky wrote words very similar to these in response to a similar wave of print nostalgia. That his words ring as true today shows how little actual progress we have made over the past nine years.

Now is the time to double, triple, quadruple down on digital, not retreat from it. To paraphrase Shirky, we have to stop conflating “saving journalism” with “saving newspapers.” They are not the same thing.

Nostalgia and wishful thinking are powerful forces, but a lousy business model.