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Stark outlook for newspapers

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Newspapers have been a big part of my life for nearly four decades. My first job, at 13, was delivering The Detroit News (while remaining a loyal Detroit Free-Press reader at home). I spent nearly half of my journalism career as a reporter or editor on daily newspapers. My breakfast is incomplete without the Chicago Tribune sports section; plane rides back home are less tedious if I have a stack of newspapers, preferably including a few issues of the local daily. So as much as newspapers mean to me, it was disconcerting to hear their recent struggles summed up in such stark terms last month at ad:tech San Francisco. “The sad truth for newspapers is that every time a newspaper reader dies, he or she is not being replaced by a new reader,” said keynote speaker Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School. The title of Cole's address was “Trends, Fads and Transformations: The Impact of the Internet.” Cole has been analyzing this topic in depth for more than a decade as part of the World Internet Project, a massive effort that started in the U.S. and has spread to about 35 countries. Cole said he had delivered the same statement about departed readers at a major newspaper conference 11 years ago. “I said, "You have 25 to 30 years left,' ” he said. “They called me dangerous. They called me alarmist. They called me everything except what it turns out I actually was—which is not correct. I was an optimist. ... I think in America they have less than five.” In 1900, there were 600 communities in the U.S. with two or more daily newspapers, Cole said. “Today, we have six,” he said. “Instead of counting down the two-newspaper towns, we're now counting up the no-newspaper towns—and we're in a city [San Francisco] that pretty soon is going to be a no-newspaper town.” To Cole, a major reason for the shrinkage is clear: “We know that 30 years ago teenagers didn't read newspapers but started to when they got into their 20s and 30s,” he said. “Today, they don't read newspapers and the evidence is clear they never will.” Where will this all end? “We're going to see four or five global American voices,” Cole said. “The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, probably The Washington Post. I used to think it would be my beloved Los Angeles Times; it won't. I used to think it would be USA Today; it won't.” Cole, who also discussed the ongoing decline of the film, music and book publishing industries, ended his remarks on a high note, saying the iPad could have a tremendous, positive impact on newspapers and magazines. “Keep in mind newspapers and magazines were never going to do very well on the Internet, because the Internet until now was a lean-forward experience,” he said. “Nobody wants to lean forward and read a newspaper. ... What the iPad, and all tablets, does—it restores newspapers and magazines to their natural environment.” John Obrecht is editor of BtoB and BtoB's Media Business. He can be reached at jobrecht@crain.com.
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