Recent headlines about the newspaper industry have gone from bad to worse, as one paper after another faces financial troubles. This week, newspapers in Detroit announced that they will be cutting home deliveries back to only three times a week. The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy just last week, and the New York Times Company announced that they would be mortgaging their Manhattan headquarters, borrowing up to $225 million to ease a potential cash flow squeeze.
These are grim times for the newspaper industry, and it's expected to get worse. But these tough times do not mean that newspapers are becoming extinct. While newspapers might not have a lot of money right now, what they do have is a dedicated, sought-after audience with a deep connection to and belief in the credibility of newspapers. To survive, newspapers must leverage these two critical components -- audience and credibility -- and more quickly adapt and innovate in a rapidly evolving media landscape.
I recently conducted a poll for a book I am writing on the 2008 election about how various media are perceived in light of their coverage of both the election and the economic crisis. I looked not only at the perceived credibility of each type of media -- newspaper, television, radio and online -- but also at the frequency of readership and viewership, and the role each played in informing and influencing people.
The results were striking and surprising, particularly related to newspapers. People are still reading newspapers and they are reading them often. Newspapers are still influential, still important in shaping the news and particularly important in influencing elites.
Of the 2000 people polled, more than three-quarters of adults and 84 percent of elites read newspapers every day or a few times a week, either in print or online, to inform them about the election. Two-thirds of adults found newspapers to be informative in the election coverage. And two-thirds of adults said that newspapers played a leading role in reporting on the financial crisis that has hit America.
Indeed, newspapers didn't come in first in every category. The poll showed the vibrancy of cable television and broadcast news, which I expected. More than 80 percent of adults watched the news on cable television for information on the election, and more people found cable television to be more informative on election issues than newspapers.
Yet while television may lead in viewers, many believe that newspapers play a critical role in shaping the coverage that appears both on broadcast and all other mediums. Over half of adults and elites agreed that newspapers provided definitive information that guided both the networks and cable stations in reporting the news. Sixty percent of adults said that newspapers set the tone for news coverage both in Washington and around the country. And more adults and elites believed that newspapers are more, not less, authoritative than cable television.
Furthermore, advertisements are more trusted and influential in newspapers than they are in other forms of media like television, radio and general online. Adults and elites surveyed found advertisements in the print editions of newspapers to be more accurate and reliable than advertisements on television, on the radio, online and outdoors. A majority of adults and half of elites said they look at advertisements in print editions of newspapers frequently and that at least sometimes these advertisements influence their decision to purchase a good. These findings are incredibly important as they should encourage advertisers about the value of newspapers, which would in turn improve their financial situation.
So what can newspapers do? Focus on their credibility to continue to draw a quality audience, which in turn helps draw in advertisers. And then innovate. And do it faster than they're doing it now. The nature of what a newspaper is has changed. The online components of newspapers are now just as important as in print -- and increasingly are becoming more interactive, further drawing in audiences. Nine percent of adults and 16 percent of elites surveyed said they post comments to articles or blogs at least a few times a week.
Newspapers have become an interactive part of the news media, and must continue to evolve in this direction. People are reading newspapers online in addition to in print, posting comments in response to articles, reading blog postings and participating in live chats with newspaper reporters. The future is bright for the newspaper industry so long as they learn to stay ahead of the digital curve and continually innovate while maintaining the credibility that is core to drawing in readers.
Doug Schoen is independent researcher who consults with a number of companies, including Edelman. Among Edelman's clients is the Newspaper Association of America.