Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tyrannosaurus Rexanna Loves Print

I was watching the CBS report “Stop The Presses” that deals with the demise of the American newspaper. So many have gone out of business or are in bankruptcy: The Rocky Mountain News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Seattle Post. It’s all because of the Internet, say observers, including the free news online. At the end of the video, Gail Shister, who's been with the Philadelphia Inquirer for 30-years, says, “The big downside of [online] speed is that a lot of times you don’t get the quality control, you don’t get enough editing, you don’t get that extra phone call to check something.” But quality control angst is for old people, Shister concludes. “It’s generational. People under 50 don’t know what they are missing because they never had it. And, more importantly, they don’t care. I still get excited when I pick up a new paper and open it for the first time, but I’m a dinosaur -- and I accept that.”

I'm not convinced. Is the decline in newspaper readership really “generational” – or is it pervasive for this medium in particular? After all, newspapers are about news, timeliness, and what’s happening now. Besides, we've been warned for years about the environmental impact of print newspapers. So does a decline in newspaper readership in 2009 really point to a vast movement of readers away from print generally? If so, how to explain the popularity of Real Simple with the under-thirty crowd? Or my 28-year-old daughter’s monthly waiting for Oprah's O to arrive in the mail?

In 1998, Pew noted that, while the television news landscape had been transforming, the audience for print media was stable. Back then, 68 percent of survey respondents reported reading a daily newspaper regularly. Even then, though, Pew found that only 28 percent of those under age 30 read a newspaper “yesterday,” as compared to 69 percent of seniors. Have newspapers always been for the "over-fifty"?

In 2000, Mediaweek reported that magazine readership was on the rise, with increases across the board. Since then, a bunch of magazines have gone “digital too” – Maxim, Elle, MacWorld, BusinessWeek, VIVA, New Beauty, Boating, Popular Mechanics, Esquire, and Playboy, to name a few. How will digital magazines fare? Who knows? It doesn’t cost publishers much to experiment, so the mere presence of a digital version doesn’t signify a real trend or a real investment.

Frankly, the thought of a digital magazine makes me glaze over, so I’m not ready to throw my print magazines out the window yet. I do subscribe to far fewer magazines than I once did, simply because being a writer forces me online. I get most stuff electronically now -- mail, newspapers, advertisements (!), work-related content. Still, I may be a dinosaur, but I’m not ready for an exclusively digital diet. Print smells better, for one thing, plus you can dog-ear and rip the pages. Grrrr.

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