Global Conference 2008

Global Conference 2008

The Future of Print Media: How to Adapt to the Digital Age

Monday, April 28, 2008 / 2:30 pm - 3:45 pm

It was moderator Gordon Crovitz's considerable acumen in guiding the discussion that made several points clear: The contraction of print media is really the creation of new opportunities in this digital age; and newspapers are really media companies well positioned to lead the way with strong branding, talented writers, a deep sense of social responsibility and resources that far exceed what competing businesses offer.

If you wonder whether newspapers will be an integral part of America′s digital society, look at businessmen like Sam Zell, who has taken the helm at Tribune Company, and Brian Tierney, a local businessman who recently became publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer. When executives like these enter the news business, it′s evidence that claims of the demise of the print medium are, indeed, greatly exaggerated.

But newspapers today face twin challenges: how to adapt to and monetize digital distribution and advertising revenue; and how to meet the Fourth Estate's obligation of "feeding them spinach with the ice cream" in the interests of a civil society.

"Newspapers are 'news media' companies," said Brian Greenspun, President of the Las Vegas Sun. "We're just witnessing how news will be delivered a little different from the past, and in an enterprise fashion." Some people will still receive their news in print with their coffee, he added, while others will expect to read it over the Internet. Publishers are working to align distribution with consumer preference, but print media, he maintained, will be around for a long time. "The future will also include integrated and stand-alone rich media, primary source materials, and community participation," Greenspun continued. "The Las Vegas Sun ceased print news years ago through a joint operating agreement with our former rival newspaper, which still prints and distributes a morning paper. This freed us to become the newspaper we wanted to be and put the capital 'J' back in journalism through investigative and in-depth reporting.

"The challenge is monetizing the Internet," he added. "It may take three to five years from now, but we'll figure it out."

Tierney's confidence is equally unflinching. "The number of newspapers in America has not changed appreciably in a century," he explained. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, we have 470 journalists serving the community. Where local radio or television put five people on a Phillies game with maybe one minute of evening news coverage, I have journalists who can cover the game from all angles and give the consumer instant access to statistics and Phillies-related information with a depth no radio or television station can provide. We have branding, and The Inquirer produces much of the Philly news available via the Internet." To get through the current period, he continued, the secret is to focus like a laser beam on cost. "We renegotiated a number of contracts, eliminated wasteful habits and realigned resources to grow online revenue, stabilize print news, improve quality, create niche products, incorporate local video, online radio and ask what else we can sell from our web presence."

Gone are the days of print's incredible profit margins, Tierney said. Ad revenue is way down. "It's extremely difficult to create print advertisement, compared to radio or television ads," he said. "It's not very glamorous either, so many advertising agencies ceased doing print ads. ... Our advertising staff now goes to ad agencies and businesses to show them what can be done with print ads and to do the technical layout for them. 'You want to buy a Phillies ticket for tomorrow based on today′s game? To the left of the story is a link to buy your Phillies tickets now.'"

Online reporting has its advantages. "In Las Vegas, the Sun's reporting on the Monte Carlo (casino fire) commenced before the Las Vegas Fire Department arrived on the scene, and in a multimedia approach with depth over several days," said Greenspun. "We had over 40 million web hits on this event alone. No one else generates that level of click volume in the Las Vegas market. Advertisers are smart and they'll go where they'll be successful in getting their ad seen."

Ted Olson is co-chairing an Aspen Institute study on the community information needs of a democracy. "The product is not in decline," he stated, "but the old form of delivery is. The consumer's appetite is there for news, and newspapers are well positioned to serve those needs once they figure out the revenue challenge associated with the new forms of distribution."

Perhaps it is no surprise that as a former solicitor general, Olson's views of newspapers are quite grounded. "In a democracy the most important thing we have is good information," he said. "Newspapers have traditionally served our democracy well in that capacity." Anyone can call himself a journalist and publish something on the web, said Olson, but newspapers possess the resources to provide a depth and breadth on issues that is difficult to replicate. This benefits democracy, he continued, and if the Internet facilitates distributing that information or contributing more depth, so much the better.

"But the web raises important First Amendment questions related to what constitutes a journalist from others who report on an event," he continued. There are shield laws in 49 states protecting journalists from revealing sources. Does that protection extend to anyone publishing any text on the Internet? Who decides? Who credentials? What is privacy? What do you do about serving the needs of small communities? It's branding that has traditionally distinguished a journalist from a note-taking gadfly.

While today's young people may read printed news less than a generation ago, it was noted that not many young people read newspapers 30 years ago either. Youngsters today may be more adept at multimedia and locating information online, but Greenspun notes that when they do come to the point where they want information, that Google search often leads them to a newspaper article. The challenge is to "feed them spinach with the ice cream" so what they read is not only attractive and satisfies their "light" tastes, but offers substantive thought that contributes to their education as citizens.


Gordon Crovitz

Columnist and Former Publisher, The Wall Street Journal


Brian Greenspun

President and Editor, Las Vegas Sun

Theodore Olson

Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP

Brian Tierney

Publisher, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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