Newspapers and books fight for a niche in evolving digital ecosystem

Michael Hurtig | January 31st, 2012

A thing of the past? (credit: Susan Lesch)

In five years–though maybe not four months, as the Atlantic proposes–print editions of even the most venerable papers could join phone booths, video store late fees and Saturday mail delivery as quaint relics of the past.

Newspapers can lay some of the blame for their swift decline on recent disadvantages (trouble making money off the tablet market compared to e-books, whose sales tripled between February of 2010 and 2011)  and factors inherent to their mission (fleeting relevance due to immediacy, which makes them less attractive as collectors’ items compared to spiffy tricked out “book books”).Some industry analysts think newspapers could benefit from repackaging themselves in digest form and entering the tablet market, but the wide access to archives the internet affords makes that questionable. Tablet users will read the paper on their gadgets, but aren’t willing to pay for the privilege of doing so. And a recent Morgan Stanley survey found that nearly half of tablet users cancel their print subscriptions).

Newspapers have no reason to gloat, but they shouldn’t bear the brunt of print’s slow demise, either. Misery loves company, and even after a robust holiday sales period–year-to-year figures spiked 16%–old-fashioned bound books are unlikely to escape the freefall imperiling all forms of paper communication, with predictions of a 40 to 50% reduction in paper media by 2015.

And as evidenced by plummeting DVD sales, new technology can only be an industry’s salve for so long: e-books will struggle to maintain those triple-digit revenue surges. Finally, data suggests that the bleeding in newspaper circulation numbers has slowed. That’s another small cause for celebration, even if numbers reached a plateau only after falling offa cliff, by 45%, since 2003.