What are American Newspapers going to Do?

I know that feeling sorry for the Washington Post and the New York Times isn’t something that comes naturally to people here at Redstate, so I won’t ask you to do that. Instead I’d like to just ask a few questions as a disinterested observer (since I subscribe to neither, and I don’t own any stock):

What are these newspapers going to do with themselves? The Washington Post’s profit fell by more than 77 percent in the fourth quarter and this comes after a long and depressing string of losses (all based on declining advertising revenue) at lots of other papers. You’ve read the news: they’re closing, they’re consolidating, nobody is advertising, they’re cutting staff in their newsrooms, they’re cutting reporters in their newsrooms, they’re cutting their newsrooms, they’re doing everything they can to avoid the Reaper, but many of them aren’t going to be able to do that. Many of them are going to wind up on the auction block or worse. What’s left of a newspaper when everyone has left the building? Vivid memories? Stains on the furniture?

“It’s the advertising-based businesses that are really pulling them down,” said newspaper analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell Inc. “It’s very stark.”

There’s very little advertising investment going on right now of the new and ambitious kind, except in magazines like Sports Illustrated for Kids and Guns & Ammo (motorcycle magazines are also doing comparatively well, and it’s nice to see two of my personal interests well-represented during bad times). Neither of those publications have much to do with being what either the WaPo or the NYT like to think of themselves as being: the Newspapers of Record. NYT is doing a kind of “last man standing” strategy based on an investment from a reclusive Mexican billionaire, and I suppose the Kaiser family has diversified itself well enough that they don’t really care if the WaPo goes belly-up. Still, the question begs to be asked: is the newsprint medium really dead? Does anyone want to invest in placing an ad in a newspaper that’s printed on dead trees with big printing presses? I add that last part because the big printing presses and the trucks and the rest of the infrastructure employ a lot more people than appear on the masthead, and that’s something worth thinking about if a large number of these businesses go under.

I ask this question because I don’t see any corresponding uptick in consumer sales that would lead me to believe that online advertising is any more effective, at least right now. Maybe it’s all just a sour economy and the newspapers will rebound once it does. I think their losses now will be more or less permanent: I think those advertising dollars are going to come back in only a fraction of their lost volume, and that means that all of the major newspapers around the country are going to have to contract.

Thoughts? Criticisms? I’m putting this out there for discussion, not necessarily judgment based on political orientation. I just find it hard to believe that American journalism of the sort that has been practiced for the past 50 years or so can long survive. It seems like it’s going to become more fragmented, more entrepreneurial, and less centralized, simply because these large organizations can no longer keep trudging on.

It would be comforting to the newspaper business if they could attribute all of this to the downturn in the economy, but I know they can’t, and so do they. If the writing on the wall is that printed newspapers are going to become more and more scarce, how do you keep the revenue going in their place? Micropayments? Online subscription with DRM? A total restructuring of the way newspapers are published so that they can both earn money and continue to publish news in a digital age?

As I’ve said I have no personal stake in the newspapers that are on the brink of failure, so that’s why I feel comfortable asking these questions.