Back when pundits were assuring us physical books were dead, those who didn’t assume we’d all have moved beyond text literacy tended to have a hierarchy of replacement.
As I remember it, magazines would be first to go. Most of them aren’t particularly local, they could as easily be delivered on CD-ROMs (back in the day) as in paper form, we all wanted full-text searching—and most of us don’t keep most magazines anyway.
Next books: Very little bandwidth (a lot less than magazines, although comparable to journals), no localization, ideal for full-text searching—and just think! If you find a word you aren’t sure of, click on it and the onboard dictionary will pronounce and define it. No wonder publishers abandoned hardcopy books years ago: It’s an obvious win for the digital revolution. Last, as I remember it, would be newspapers. Why? Because of local functions, including their use as advertising conduits for local merchants.
The situation’s changed. Or maybe it hasn’t.
In October 2006, LexisNexis announced the results of a nationwide survey on news sources people trust the most. (The press release says “consumers.” I’d say “citizens.” Let’s split the difference and use “people.”) The findings? “When [people] are faced with major events that significantly affect their lives…their trust mostly remains with traditional media.” For immediate information, that means television first, radio second, daily newspapers third, internet sites from traditional media fourth—and fifth (6% of those surveyed) “emerging media” such as blogs, chat rooms, user groups.
Who do you trust? “On average, consumers are four to six times more likely to feel that traditional media is more trustworthy than emerging news sources…” In the future? “More than half…surveyed anticipate they will continue to mostly trust and rely on traditional news sources,” with a third expecting they’ll rely on and trust both traditional and emerging media. Just over one in eight (13%) anticipate trusting and relying on mostly emerging media.
As surveys go, this one seems plausible: 1,500 Americans, of which 1,167 were defined as consumers rather than “business professionals.” Claimed accuracy is 2.5 to 3.5% at 95% confidence level for the consumer portion.
A quick item in the January 9, 2007 Media Life cites a Gallup poll suggesting that the trend of abandoning newspapers is slowing. Twice as many people (44%) use newspapers as a major news source compared to the internet (22%)—and the percentage using newspapers didn’t drop from 2004 to 2006, although it dropped from 47% to 44% between 2002 and 2004. Use of the internet for news increased by five percentage points from 2002 to 2004—but only by two points from 2004 to 2006. Local TV news topped newspapers; network, cable, and public TV come between newspapers and the internet, while radio trails.
An article by Lisa Snedeker in the same Media Life (www.medialifemagazine.com) says newspapers are hurting but “still amazingly healthy.” As the title says, “Don’t write off the daily paper quite yet.” Snedeker offers this answer to thoughts that the American newspaper is headed into extinction: “It is not, not today, not tomorrow and not for a long time, if ever.” Why not? Well, newspapers continue to show “impressive profitability”—still showing profit margins in excess of 20%. (If you’re Elseviley that may not sound great. If you’re Safeway, any auto company or most other industries except banking, it’s thrilling.) One of the “nastier forecasts” for the future has “profits shrinking to somewhere around 12 percent”—still a “very healthy enterprise.”
Indeed, if newspapers were headed toward extinction, then why would so many millionaires—all shrewd businessmen—be trying so hard to buy them, men like former GE chief Jack Welch, who’s been after the Boston Globe? Not to lose money. Part of it is the prestige that comes with owning a newspaper, but they also see real opportunity. They see a new future for newspapers.
That future has a lot to do with locality—the ability to reach local audiences more effectively than any other medium. As the story goes, newspapers deliver “for readers and for advertisers trying to reach those readers.” They deliver more news (local and otherwise) and engender a sense of ownership. They’re “a mass medium at the local level… Newspapers offer readers a sense of community and also a sense of the public good, as a forum for discussion of issues facing communities, and this is never more so than during periods of crisis or dramatic social change.”
Snedeker argues that the power of local papers will increase as media fragmentation increases: “Even as its readership declines, it will still be the largest voice.” And, to be sure, some loss of print subscriptions will represent moves to the web sites—and on the web, newspapers have strong brand names. “What newspapers have most going for themselves is their ability to reinvent themselves.” Snedeker argues that papers “are perhaps the most aggressive of all media in looking for new means to connect with their audiences.” Around here, I’ve seen that for decades. The San Francisco Chronicle reinvented itself as a daily magazine when TV news became the first place to go for the hot national/world stories—earning sneers from journalism schools but establishing itself as part of the ongoing culture. Since then, SFGate showed up as one of the earliest and strongest newspaper websites (originally serving both the Chron and the Examiner when they had a joint operations agreement), and seems once again to be reinventing itself as a source of strong, long local and regional coverage. (Once again, newspaper critics sneered when the Chron started a daily “Chronicle Watch” feature to identify failed public infrastructure situations and keep pointing at them until they’re corrected. That’s Not What A Dignified Pseudo-National Newspaper Does—but it’s definitely what a local paper does, and the feature has been highly effective.) The paper lost a huge number of subscription readers in the last couple of years, partly because it decided not to be the regional paper of choice for all of Northern California and Nevada and stopped subsidizing distant local delivery that Bay Area advertisers didn’t want to pay for. What’s happened: The Chron is doing a lousy job of being Northern California’s version of the New York Times—and a pretty decent job of being a local metro paper with a very strong web presence.
Snedeker followed up on February 1 with a refined look at the so-called circulation crisis: “Fact is, your average paper is just fine.” Just as the earlier drop in circulation mostly affected afternoon papers in two-newspaper towns, the current one mostly affects the big dailies—and may involve public-company profitability as much as real health. Snedeker lays it out clearly:
For years, so many big dailies were competing for national ranking, and for Pulitzer Prizes, opening bureaus in Washington and New York and sometimes overseas. They shunned local news, dismissing much of it as chicken dinner news, the squabbles that came out of, say, a speech at a Rotary lunch.
Not so the small papers. Their philosophy never changed. Rooted in the community, and far more dependent on advertising from community businesses, they kept covering the local Rotary lunches and the school board meetings and the zoning board.
It turned out to be a smart move.
The Daily Republic of Mitchell, South Dakota—in an area steadily losing population—may only have 12,443 circulation, but that circulation is growing and advertising is solid. One industry estimate says 75% to 80% of the American newspaper industry is smaller papers that are maintaining or gaining circulation; the “circulation crisis” is among big city dailies and some midsize markets.
Randy Craig of the Inland Press Association gets it: “It’s all about local. In any given situation, if you want to know what is happening, you have to read the local newspaper.” When surveys have asked the question, respondents have said they’re “most interested in things happening in their towns and neighborhoods, what’s called hyper-local news.” And, as the story continues, it has to be well-written news—quality, not just quantity.
Heidi Dawley reported on “The endangered newspaper that is not” on February 8, 2007 at Media Life. She reports that on a global basis, newspapers are gaining in circulation—10% between 2001 and 2005. There are also more newspapers than ever: More than 10,000 dailies with a total of 479 million circulation.
That’s partly because of free newspapers (most newspaper revenue comes from advertisers, not subscribers), but paid newspapers are also seeing global growth. European circulation is up. U.S. newspaper circulation is down—but not by much (0.66% between 2001 and 2005). Overall worldwide, paid circulation increased 6.39% from 2001 to 2005.
Not all freebies are little throwaways. Leggo in Italy circulates more than a million copies; Metro in Britain runs 977,000 copies (a U.S. Metro circulates 668,000). The article suggests more papers will switch from paid to free, particularly in the U.S., where subscription prices are low anyway.
I find it sad when intelligent adults tell me they don’t read daily newspapers; they get all the news they need on the internet. What you don’t get from the internet, in my opinion, is the overall awareness that a good regional provides—or the intense local awareness a good local paper provides. You also don’t get background awareness of what local businesses want to offer, an important part of maintaining local business. And you miss the local, regional and national cultural coverage good papers provide.
I’d like to state confidently that good print newspapers will be around as long as I’m alive, but I’m less confident about that prediction than I am about the survival of print books and magazines. Still, I suspect that local newspapers will be OK based on what I’m reading. For regionals and nationals, one key may be moving to private ownership. There’s an unsustainable conflict between the “More Profit This Quarter and Screw the Long Term” attitude of stock market analysts and the need for reinvestment (in the web and elsewhere) and riding out short-term crises that makes newspapers work.
I’ll close this section by pointing you to a long article from the February 2007 Columbia Journalism Review: “The Race” by Robert Kuttner. It’s 19 print pages; you can find it at www.cjr.org/issues/2007/2/Kuttner.asp. Kuttner discusses the web initiatives of newspapers and a number of other issues. Kuttner agrees that local papers are in good shape, as are the biggest national papers, with “mid-sized regional metropolitan dailies” at greatest risk. (Kuttner also takes a justified swipe at “Web-only journalism,” noting that Slate and Salon have both become primarily commentary rather than news, “since talk is cheap and reportage isn’t.”) Kuttner believes “many big dailies have turned the corner” toward financially and journalistically viable paths of “becoming hybrids.” It’s an interesting read—and probably more readable in the print magazine.
I’ve been sitting on this one for most of a year. Some of you already read it in the May 1, 2006 Library Journal feature “Best magazines of 2005.” “Techno-seers who predict that the Internet will spell the demise of print media could be accused of being oblivious to the very real pleasures of leisurely leafing through the glossy pages of well-produced magazines… [T]he more than 1,000 new print magazine launches in 2005 suggest that sunny skies are still ahead.”
2005 was “another good year for print magazine publishers,” with a 7.2% growth in advertising revenue. As in every other year, some old (and new) magazines failed and some new magazines took off. Yes, there are gray clouds—one of which is “major publishers’ tendency to zero in on large numbers of subscribers as the sole indicator of success.” That’s a problem, given that magazine publishing has always been a “long-tail” field, with at least 95% of all magazines targeted at niches. Trying to claim huge subscription numbers to get high-end advertisers (by offering deeply discounted subscriptions) may work in the short term, but “discount subscribers are a notoriously unreliable audience.” (It’s worth noting that nontraditional “magazines” continue, at least as short-term efforts: One of 2005’s “best magazines” is the quarterly DVD-ROM Journal of Short Film, which seems to still be in business. Another is a CD-ROM audio literary journal.)
An early 2007 Media Life piece is a little less sanguine—although it’s not a matter of survival. Diego Vasquez asked Marty Walker of Walker Communications “Why magazines are in such doldrums.” In this case “doldrums” doesn’t mean magazines disappearing—just that ad revenues didn’t grow much in 2006. It appears that magazine publishers are acting sensibly: Cutting their rate bases (the number of readers promised to advertisers). What happened with magazines in 2006? Some “big” magazines folded—but do we really miss FHM, Shock, Cargo and Elle Girl? Audit Bureau of Circulation rules got tighter. Walker thinks we might see a “shakeout” of sorts in technology or product-related magazines this year—but expects to see strength in niche markets as well as fashion and home furnishing. “I think you’ll see more and more niche-type magazines”—always a strength of print magazines and maybe the future. He’s seeing that car companies now advertise in smaller magazines. Then there are good things: “I don’t think magazines dumbed themselves down, they still have a high standard. I was kind of happy to see that the shopping magazines didn’t do so well, They’ve kind of plateaued. They’re not magazines, they’re catalogs.”
Like newspapers (only more so), most print magazines are primarily funded by advertising and (in many cases) carry only as much editorial copy as ads support, frequently on a page-for-page basis. Fortunately, magazine advertising has the virtues of impact without interference: The ads can provide both excitement and information without slowing you when you’re trying to read stories. Every time I check Slate and wait for that wretched drop-down half-screen ad to go away (or forget it’s there and watch my screen go berserk) or try to watch an Approved TV Clip and sit through the mandatory up-front ad, I’m reminded just how well print advertising balances the needs of commerce and the desires of the citizen-reader.
CDs may be the easiest of all physical media to replace with new equivalents—not “digital replacements,” since CDs are digital. They don’t carry advertising. The visual splendor of LP sleeves has already been lost, by and large; 5x5" isn’t much of a canvas. To the extent that many (most?) popular contemporary CDs (and LPs) have, for a long time, been ways to sucker us into buying 12 songs of which we really want two or three, they’re ripe for the scrap heap. To the extent that musicians wind up with vastly overpriced production deals and contracts that force those 12 songs when only two or three are really ready, it’s hard to see who loses by a move toward download sales. Bandwidth was a problem back when dragons roamed the earth (say 1998), but now that “everyone has broadband” (that is, a slight majority of U.S. internet users) and most people don’t seem to notice the crappy sound of overly-compressed MP3/AAC downloads, there’s no problem. For that matter, CDs have been around for almost exactly a quarter-century, and that’s historically the typical lifespan of a dominant audio medium.
But it’s not that simple. At least not for everybody. Just as “news” as broadly defined is becoming a complex mix of internet and physical delivery, it’s likely that recorded music will be sold and rented via a complex mix of internet and physical delivery for at least another decade. At the moment, downloads represent perhaps 10% of all music sold. What may be happening, though, is a shift in CD production and sales. RIAA members seem wedded to blockbusters: overproduced releases costing close to half a million dollars up front and requiring huge sales to earn back the money. Maybe the future tends more toward realistic recordings that cost relatively little to produce and need only a few thousand sales to become profitable, sold online and in specialty stores. That future might get us back to a variety of music that seemed to be disappearing during the blockbuster days. It might also get us back to a tradition of fair use and first sale rights that DRM-laden downloads seemed to negate.
Just one story to point out this time: Daniel Gross’ “moneybox” column posted March 27, 2007 at Slate: “The CD is dead! Long live the CD!” Gross notes the dozens of requiems (“requia” feels right, but Merriam-Webster agrees with Gross’ usage) for CDs, “mostly in the key of boo-hoo major.” He notes the drop of 25% in CD sales from 2000 to 2005, a period (as others have noted) in which the number of new CDs released also dropped by about 25% (no comment on the number of good new CDs). Sales continue to drop, and of course Tower Records closed last year.
“Conclusion: The CD is dead! Except, it’s not.” Local CD chains are doing well. Starbucks established a record label and has done great business with some CDs. Amazon has a new classical music retail outlet.
What we are witnessing is not so much the imminent death of CDs but the death of the old methods of selling CDs. It’s still possible to make money in the CD business—any business with more than $7 billion in retail sales should allow someone, somewhere, to make a profit. The incumbents are getting killed, but upstarts are thriving, using different methods.
The “legacy” manufacturers built massive infrastructures based on selling “massive and growing quantities of CDs for $15.99 and up”—hoping they could avoid the deflationary pressures that lowered LP prices and should have CD prices down to $10 or less by now, given that the incremental cost of each CD is nearly zero (the booklet and jewelcase cost much more than the disc itself). The competition—not only from download services but also from online retailers and musicians who bypass Big Media altogether—cuts into the margins.
Today, “people simply aren’t willing to pay $16 for a collection of songs they may not want.” Tower habitually overcharged; Amazon doesn’t (and neither do Target and good local stores). Most of the top-selling CDs on Amazon go for less than $10.
This short item leaves out a lot of angles, but the bottom line’s probably true for the next decade or more: “Is the CD dying as a commercial product? Sure. But it’s got a lot of dying left to do.” Meanwhile, while I won’t pay $16 (or $18) for two good songs and a bunch of crap, the stock in trade of most current releases, I’ll happily pay $10-$12 for a Sony Legacy two-disc “Essentials” package containing 30 to 40 songs I really want by an artist I care about, or one of Rhino’s first-rate compilations that comes out to less than $0.99 per good song and offers true “CD quality”—because it’s a CD. So will millions of other people. It’s a different business; it’s still a viable business.
What is there to say? First, there’s the new generation that can’t cope with print books and prefers reading from the screen. Wrong. As has now been widely reported, “Kids (age 12-18) are buying books in quantities we’ve never seen before” (Michael Cart of Booklist)—and publishers are producing better books for kids and teens. Kids are checking them out from libraries as well, as public libraries with good contemporary teen collections and good policies know. More libraries are forming teen advisory groups; more quality books appear; more teens have more spendable money; and they read books. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had a good story on this on March 7, 2007; there have been others.)
Laura Magzis offered “Books, books, books!” in the March 1, 2007 Library Journal. A library school student, Magzis notes that “many people value libraries because they are full of books we can read for free.” She objects to the absurd Lawrence Journal-World op-ed about “inefficient, obsolete” books and stresses “an important function that public libraries still serve: books, books, books for free, free, free.” Sure, libraries serve all sorts of other functions—but circulation statistics continue to improve.
Let me bottom line it for you: libraries must not let the current focus on technology overshadow the activity of people who still read books for pleasure and visit their library in search of free, portable entertainment. Often the patrons boosting our circulation statistics are the very same patrons who queue up to sue the Internet on our computers. They may want more technology, but I’m not convinced that they want it at the expense of books.
Marc Meola posted “Library porn and the inevitable future?” at ACRLog on February 16, 2007, discussing a pseudonymous essay (“Thomas H. Benton”) in the Chronicle of Higher Education that asserts, yawn, that “in 20 years, college students will regard books the way they now regard 33 RPM records…” Meole notes: “most of us know that to casually toss off the idea that technology will soon render books obsolete is a simple mistake that is made over and over again by people who focus solely on technology but ignore the economic and social systems in which books are embedded.” He points to an interesting essay by Priscilla Murphy on the century-old “death of books” refrain that speaks to the “intricate involvement” of books within the rest of media and education systems.
That’s all much more high-powered than just noting that print books continue to work, authorship, sales and (public library) circulation all continue to grow, and all that irrelevant reality-based argument. It doesn’t hurt to note (as Meola does indirectly) that the Google Book Search project basically makes books more findable rather than replacing them.
Barbara Fister added a thoughtfully written comment, including these notes:
The idea that Kids Today don’t like books is simply untrue. One of the reasons students flock to libraries to study, even when there are computers available elsewhere on campus, is because they are inspired by being in the presence of books. They may start their search on Google, and may even end there, but that doesn’t mean they hate books and have no use for them.
The great irony is that the libraries Benton finds utilitarian but uninspiring are more important than ever. Those older, dustier books he delights in uncovering in research collections will be much more readily available to the masses through mass digital projects than anything written since the early twentieth century. For newer books, students and scholars will have to turn to libraries.
Masses of books available outside the walls of libraries may be in our future, but not libraries without books.
Digressing slightly, it’s worth noting that more ways to produce books, real print books, as they’re needed are coming along. Late 2006 and early 2007 saw a good deal of publicity for the Espresso, a “$50,000 vending machine with a conceivably infinite library”—in other words, another print-on-demand package for use in libraries or stores. The prime mover, Jason Epstein, has been pushing this idea for a long time. There’s some nonsense in the publicity (a claim that “within about five years” the system “will be able to reproduce every volume ever printed,” which is not possible given copyright and the orphan works problem) and an overstatement of competitor costs (“$500,000-$1 million” in an ITI Newslink item), but it’s noteworthy that another serious for-profit competitor thinks it’s plausible to have on-demand in-store/in-library book production. Producing print books.
Finally, for this issue, portions of a January 27, 2007 piece by Richard Akerman at Science Library Pad, “reports of the death of the book are premature.” Akerman’s a science librarian and nobody’s Luddite by any means. Here’s part of what he has to say:
In 1993, Canadian futurist Frank Ogden (“Dr. Tomorrow”) wrote a book entitled The Last Book You'll Ever Read.
This was not the first and certainly not the last prediction of the imminent demise of the printed page.
There is only one problem with these predictions, which is that they are consistently wrong.
Long-format is better as a printed book. It's portable and powered only by your brain. It is readable under a variety of lighting conditions…
The only context in which e-books ever made sense to me was for university textbooks. These have the following characteristics: big; heavy; expensive; always changing; dense information explanations for people new to the field; often never used after the course or the degree is completed.
In that specific context, it makes sense to dematerialize the books so that they can be carried around easily, and also, ideally, so that they can feature enhanced materials (demonstrations, live graphs, animated problem solving etc.)
Somehow digitization of books has gotten all jumbled together with e-books and the demise of books. I think this is incorrect. Digitization is about search, not about reading…
There’s more, including Akerman’s justified excitement at the possibilities opened by full-text search for better discovery of books, “to be followed by delivery at the local library or bookstore.”
The reality is that new generations continue to read print books in very large quantities and that old generations haven’t given up on them. Books continue to thrive, augmented by new media for extension and promotion. So it is with many media.
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