There’s no mystery as to the source of all the trouble: advertising revenue has dried up. In the third quarter alone, it dropped eighteen per cent, or almost two billion dollars, from last year. For most of the past decade, newspaper companies had profit margins that were the envy of other industries. This year, they have been happy just to stay in the black. Many traditional advertisers, like big department stores, are struggling, and the bursting of the housing bubble has devastated real-estate advertising. Even online ads, which were supposed to rescue the business, have declined lately, and they are, in any case, nowhere near as lucrative as their print counterparts.
Newspaper readership has been slowly dropping for decades—as a percentage of the population, newspapers have about half as many subscribers as they did four decades ago—but the Internet helped turn that slow puncture into a blowout. Papers now seem to be the equivalent of the railroads at the start of the twentieth century—a once-great business eclipsed by a new technology. In a famous 1960 article called “Marketing Myopia,” Theodore Levitt held up the railroads as a quintessential example of companies’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Levitt argued that a focus on products rather than on customers led the companies to misunderstand their core business. Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.
Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.
Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.
(The New Yorker, James Surowiecki)