With all due respect to that astute, non-partisan observer of American society and journalism, The Pew Research Center, you heard it here first: Believe the prophecy of digital riches at your peril, especially if you’re a newspaper executive.

It’s a relief to know there’s a third party out there — and it’s the fine respectable people at Pew no less — proving the many points I’ve made about the importance of the ground game.

Still, newspaper CEOs remain deaf to this cry. Consider what Gannett CEO Gracia Martore recently told The Wall Street Journal: “’News in printed form, that’s in secular decline. But media consumption in this country is at an all-time high,’” she said.

She’s half right.

Because as Pew points out, and as measured by the fine folks at Scarborough, the trend lines on her newspapers aren’t exactly looking upward: Some of Gannett’s largest papers are on their way to becoming also-rans among local readers.

Pew points out the following:

•The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, for instance, two years ago had a 77 percent share of its audience. As measured by Scarborough, that includes the numbers of adults in the community buying the paper and making use of the digital edition. Today the paper has a 75 percent share of its audience — still OK by most management standards.

•Gannett’s papers in Des Moines, Iowa, Cincinnati and Louisville, Ky., Scarborough shows, are seeing their local adult audience decline, too, to 69, 57 and 56 percent, respectively. The Des Moines Register and Cincinnati Enquirer each experienced a 2-point drop between 2009 and 2011 while The Courier-Journal took a 7-point hit.

Dieting consumers

This might be where Martore is half right: People in these markets might enjoy the Internet and might even consume more media because of the Web, but regarding their local newspaper websites — even the print products — well, they’re dieting.

And while none of Gannett’s numbers are truly disturbing yet, what’s worrisome about these audience losses is that they’re at a slow drip, meaning no one at headquarters will notice them until someone, usually the advertising vice president, realizes that budgeted revenue can’t be delivered — all because the audience moved on.

Gannett’s not alone with these problems. As the Pew research shows, with the exception of two newspapers in the top 25, each one has a smaller print and online audience today than it did in 2009.

What’s also troubling, as Pew points out, is that the audience for news is huge, attracting about 342 million unique monthly visitors and growing.

Yet instead of welcoming consumers to their websites, a lot of dailies are building paywalls to keep people out, in the process becoming less important in their communities.

(Besides, consumers can easily get around any paywall by clicking on Google News, thereby making these “walls” as about effective as France’s Maginot Line.)

The risk

“News organizations now find themselves both partnering and competing against large technology-based organizations that are better financed and boast greater engineering knowledge,” the Pew Research Center said.

In other words, since newspapers can’t out-Google Google, they’re jumping into bed with it.

Google and Facebook, Pew said, are “driving many of the changes that have caused the advertising market for traditional media players to implode.”

Oh, but you say, our digital advertising revenues are growing. It’s all the more reason to give up the print product!

The newspaper industry doesn’t control the digital ad pie. In fact, it’s being left with less and less.

Five companies — Pew identifies them as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL — took 68 percent of online ad revenue in 2011, up from 63 percent in 2009.

If this trend continues, these five players will own the entire digital ad pie sometime in the next 11 to 13 years.

So what can you do?

You better figure out the print product. If you give up the ground game — slower and uglier than the finesse of the digital effort — then you put your franchise in danger of having nothing unique to sell to an advertiser and, worse, going out of business.

Or you can go ahead and take the bet that if you shut down your printed edition your financial picture will improve.

Larry Page, Steve Ballmer, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Armstrong and whomever the CEO du jour is at Yahoo! are hoping you make that move.

Because they know something you don’t: The sooner your newspapers go all digital, the sooner they get all the money.

Contact Douglas Page at dpagenewsandtech@gmail.com.

(3) comments

Leadzep

Please shut the papers down! I have been a pressman for 30 years, I now know what the pressmen of the 30's and 40's went through working in the sweat shops of those papers. With the online papers they have cut our workforce to the bare minimum while expecting to get same quality and amount of production. We are told daily we will be fired if things aren't done the way they want them while those doing the threatening have no idea what it takes to do our job. I love what I do, but way the papers are being managed is slowly killing off this art of printing.

djfuture

"You better figure out the print product. If you give up the ground game — slower and uglier than the finesse of the digital effort — then you put your franchise in danger of having nothing unique to sell to an advertiser and, worse, going out of business."

This statement is so true, and I am glad to see someone saying it. We are neglecting the one thing that we do better than anyone in pursuit of an arena we cannot adequately compete in. Newspapers have no chance of bridging the moat guarded by the five companies listed.

marallen23

The Des Moines Register and Cincinnati Enquirer each experienced a 2-point drop between 2009 and 2011 while The Courier-Journal took a 7-point hit.

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