Declining newspaper readership

Old line media (I mean newspapers! Come on, people: stay with me) are facing a real problem: their circulation is declining. Younger readers just aren't jumping at the chance to cough up $25 a month to have the paper delivered to their doorstep. I suspect it has something to do with irrelevancy: this demographic doesn't feel a pressing urge to spend time flipping through 35 pages of flyers, antiseptic comics, city editorials, birding columns or small-minded columnists to find the information they need.

As subscribers of the Sun Times, Newsday and others know, this decline has prompted some publishers to cook the books. Others have commissioned reader surveys to dig deeper into the psyche of the elusive Generations X and Y.

Their findings? As the OJR observed earlier this fall, young adults are picking and choosing their media: radio, alternative weeklies, RSS, Google News, and news service websites. Information doesn't come a la carte anymore: it's a multimedia all you can eat breakfast.

Last week, Wired reported on the results of focus groups commissioned by the Washington Post. Their stunning finding? A large number of young adults would not even accept a FREE subscription to the paper. Their principal objection? The clutter of old papers around the apartment.

The WPost ran an article about the circulation troubles today. You'll have to look down, look wa-a-ay down to find mention of their own troubles.

    At The Washington Post, for example, daily circulation has fallen from 779,898 to 717,696 over the past five years ... The paper chalks up some of that drop to the increased popularity of its Web site and Express, the free daily it launched in August 2003, which will soon print 175,000 copies each day.

It's a comprehensive article, covering the fraud, deceit and promotional gimmicks attempted in the quest to grow paper sales.

And that's the problem. You're not in the paper business, folks! You're in the news business! Step out of the 1970s and smell the LCD screen, people! Give me some freakin' options to consume your news!

Can I pay $2 a month to get movie listings and restaurant reviews for my neighbourhood delivered to my phone? How about a custom search function, a la Google Alerts, that delivers news of interest to me, billed to my credit card?

And not at the ridiculous rates you charge now. $4.95 for an article? That's a pricing structure left over from when corporate librarians were the only ones with access to Dialog, LexisNexis and Infomart. It doesn't reflect your costs of production, or your costs to store the information.

Oh, I know what you're going to say. People like the touch, the feel, the smell of fresh broadsheet in their hands. There's an existential aspect to old-fashioned newspapering. Sure there is. That's why I have a printer which, after rebate, cost me $30.

The paper business isn't going to die quickly. The technology is going to evolve underneath them. For example, the NYT ran an article on podcasting. But why don't they make their "audio slide shows" accessible in this new format? These are revenue streams they're not even considering.

Many news organizations will adapt, and many small community papers will continue to thrive thanks to a loyal local base, but they should stop and take their heads out of their paper mill invoices. Their readers will thank them, and the beavers, deer and eagles of British Columbia, Ontario and Norway will thank them.