Newspapers: Dead or Alive?

“Newspapers are dead.”

I’ve heard it a lot this year – those same three words.  Maybe it’s because they roll off the tongue so easily and are challenged by almost no one. Maybe it’s because in order to show others that we are charging toward the future, we must proclaim certain things from the past to be “dead.”

But sometimes facts get in the way.

To put the statement in perspective, I asked myself: What are some things that are very much “alive” in America today? The first one that came to mind was Starbucks – and America’s coffee addiction in general.  I am not an addict, but many of my friends are. According to a recent National Coffee Association survey, 56% of U.S. adults over the age of 18 consumed coffee in the past day. And fully 68% did so in the past week. Some of this consumption has shifted from coffee shops to home during the recession, but overall consumption remains strong.

In that same typical week, according to Scarborough Research, an estimated 71% of U.S. adults over the age of 18 consumed newspaper content. Just as some coffee consumption has shifted from shops to home, some newspaper consumption has shifted from print to online. For instance, of this 71% readership, some read the print edition, some visited an online newspaper directly, and others clicked through to a newspaper story via Google or another search engine. But all of them consumed newspaper content, and this combined penetration of newspaper readership exceeds that of coffee drinkers in America. With this being the case, “dead” feels like a misplaced adjective to describe newspapers.

As it turns out, 71% readership also stacks up well against other popular phenomena in America. The 2008 U.S. presidential election attracted the highest voter turnout in the past 40 years, with 62% of eligible voters participating.  And last year’s Super Bowl matching the Indianapolis Colts against the New Orleans Saints was one of the most viewed in the history of the game – attracting about 45% of U.S. homes.

Then there is Facebook – one of the great new media creations of our time.  It feels like everyone is on Facebook. Indeed, more than half a billion people worldwide are, with new users adopting it at a stunning rate. Still, as big a phenomenon as Facebook is, more Americans consume newspaper content. In fact, as of September 2010, Facebook’s U.S. penetration has yet to reach 50%.

Admittedly, my company, Legacy.com, has a vested interest in strong newspaper readership. We partner with newspapers to help them bring their obituaries “to life” online, by enabling users to sign online guest books, upload photos, donate to charity, send flowers, and pay tribute in other ways. Obituaries are among newspapers’ most popular content – both in print and online – with traffic to the online obituary sections we host increasing at double-digit percents annually. 

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that my head is stuck in the sand. It is absolutely true that print newspaper circulation has declined over the last twenty years. And while reporting methods render certain past vs. present comparisons inconclusive, some analysts make good arguments that the proliferation of media in all forms has resulted in a modest decline in overall readership of newspaper content, despite growth in online newspaper consumption.  And like in many other industries, some newspaper companies were seriously impacted by, and in some cases did not survive, the most recent recession.

But those who keep proclaiming that newspapers have taken their last breath – believing that if they repeat it enough times, it will be true – are missing the big picture. Because when viewed through a fact-based lens with the proper perspective, it seems quite obvious that newspapers are very much alive – certainly as alive as Facebook, Starbucks, the Super Bowl, and democracy in America.

About Stopher Bartol

I was the first employee of Legacy.com in 1998. Among other things, this means that during the early years I attempted, through necessity, to do just about every job at the company – with some outcomes better than others! Fortunately we soon built an experienced team like no other company of our kind. And now as CEO, I spend most of my time helping shape our strategic direction. I was raised in Sun Prairie, WI, and attended Beloit College in Wisconsin before receiving my MBA from the University of Chicago. After 9 valuable years in consulting with McKinsey & Company, I decided it was time for a change. My goal was to put my management experience to work on something innovative, entrepreneurial, and good. Why online obituaries? I address that in my first blog post, which I hope you’ll read. I feel lucky to be a part of Legacy.com. When I’m not working I enjoy listening to and playing music – my favorite artists include Rush, The Beatles, and Neil Finn/Crowded House. I love every kind of food in existence, ping-pong, a good game of H-O-R-S-E, and Scrabble – best played with my wife and our three kids at home in Evanston. I can be reached via email at stopher@legacy.com.
This entry was posted in Ask the CEO and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.