BY MARK BLAINE | OB BLOGGER
The Oregonian's move to a reduced distribution schedule seems to be one more piece of evidence that the future of printed newspapers is on an obvious trajectory. Print is dying. Right?
The reality, however, is that the print version of local news is a persistently attractive product for a variety of reasons, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. It's our relationship with print that is changing, and news on paper is still a key part of the solution to the local news sustainability problem. The Oregonian is notable because it's the biggest player in our market, but the bellwethers for this change–and potential solutions–are in the community newspapers across the state.
The strategies have been varied. The East Oregonian, the Baker City Herald and others reduced their frequencies. Most of the local papers around the state launched websites early in the game and some found new audiences among former residents who moved away or others who have some remote connection to the community. The locals also diversified and launched other print publications to create new local markets and give more variety to advertisers. Printed products, especially news distributed locally, still reflect the core of their business.
Tom Brown, former publisher of the Eastern Oregonian, notes on the paper's website that print circulation is down, but web readership is "way up," and the East Oregonian has probably never been read by more people. The franchise for local papers is in local news – hyperlocal news before it was a buzzword – the stuff that bigger news organizations haven't covered well but that has a powerful attraction for readers who have some connection to the community.
It made news earlier this year that Warren Buffett has bought 28 local newspapers in the last two years, seeing value in local readership and providing an evaluation of how he thinks about local news products. "People will seek their news – what’s important to them – from whatever sources provide the best combination of immediacy, ease of access, reliability, comprehensiveness and low cost," he wrote in his 2012 Shareholder Letter. Right now, he writes, that source is generally local newspapers, most of which are working to find the right mix of print and digital. He also is a strong advocate of paywalls because the value that the local news organizations offer is in the local news reporting that they do and giving it away online while charging for it in print undercuts that value.
Ken Doctor, author of the "Newsonomics of" column for the Nieman Journalism Lab, wrote recently about the role of paper in the news business and how it has tracked the shift in business and illuminated reader preferences. Print is declining, but it can tell us a lot of things about the news business. Declining is different from dying, however, and print satisfies a the needs of a core group of readers.
Publishers generally have cut print products in the last few years, but Doctor wonders about what the floor might be for further cuts to print. Subscribers have been up-sold both print and digital packages that cost more than what just print subscribers paid for, even though, Doctor reports, most readers aren't using the digital products much. It wouldn't make much sense to take more of the print product away from these readers who prefer print.
We're looking at an environment in which local news and local news organizations deliver content across multiple platforms, and there's not one delivery method that's going to win out. The strategic use of a variety of platforms is a good thing: It's forcing news organizations to pay attention to what their readers want and need. The mixed media solution is more nuanced and complex, but it's also better supported with data that the digital part of the mix provide.
Local news organizations will find their way because there's a valuable audience to serve. Readers aren't buying the paper, they're buying the news. Right now, most of those readers still like to read that news on paper, and paper will be part of building a more complex, more realistic business model for the media.
Mark Blaine blogs on the media biz for Oregon Business.