Feast, famine, cannibalism in newspapers

What’s up with the newspaper industry? Surprisingly, readership is up in developing nations where globalization is raising incomes, according to the World Association of Newspapers which recently unveiled its exhaustive summary of the print news industry in 2007. A WAN press release offers detailed results by region and country. The other big theme I noticed is the rise of the free dailies which are proliferating faster in mass-transit dense Europe than in the suburbanized USA.

U.S. press leaders are part of WAN. The following quote from Dean Singleton, chief executive of the MediaNews Group, caught my eye. Singleton owns a string of papers in my San Francisco Bay Area, including the Hayward Daily Review, to which I subscribe. According to WAN Singleton says:

Why should we cannibalize our newspaper, why not simply adjust and wait and see? Personally I prefer to have a cannibal in my family rather than to have one as my enemy.

I assume that Singleton made those remarks in the context of explaining why newspapers should be moving their businesses to the web. But seeing as how MediaNews employees will soon vote on whether or not to join the Newspaper Guild, let me emphasize that Singleton could not have meant cannibalism literally. California law would clearly forbid such behavior though I believe the federal protections may have been amended after 9/11.

Meanwhile there must be consternation in the Los Angeles Times newsroom as the Tribune Company enforces a chain-wide edict that there be a 50-50 split between pages devoted to advertising and news. According to MediaPost:

If the 50-50 policy were already in force, this would have necessitated a 13% reduction in editorial volume, resulting in a total size reduction of 26%. Plotting the trend out, presuming that advertising inches decrease at the same pace, the newspapers would be less than one-quarter of their current size within five years.

But while newspapers, the foundation of mass media, suffer readership and advertising declines, it appears that readership is growing for alternative papers that are presumably weekly in periodicity. When the Media Audit looked at readership in 117 alt papers in 88 media markets, it found a three percent increase in print readership and a seven point increase in web unique visits. The print gains sound good in comparison to daily newspaper losses but the online viewer ship seems anemic.

What does it all mean? Search me, but the prevailing wisdom is summarized in an IDC forecast to the effect that:

Internet advertising revenue will double from $25.5 billion in 2007 to $51.1 billion in 2012. During the forecast period, Internet advertising will grow about eight times as fast as advertising at large.

So maybe Dean Singleton is right. Newspapers shouldn’t say “cannibalism” as if it’s a bad thing.