Print Media: Facing a Digital Future or Extinction

shutterstock_116212888In an early episode of “House of Cards,” the new Netflix TV series about Washington’s political underbelly, the editor of the fictional Washington Herald newspaper gets fired because he’s stuck in a pre-internet era, an era without instant news updates or constant online chatter.

He wants things to remain as they’ve always been. And he’s not happy when a rising young reporter gets lots of media attention for her scoops and then turns down his offer to be the paper’s primary Capitol Hill reporter, in part, because she wants to write a political blog, a medium he sees as being beyond contempt.

This episode shows the tough decisions faced every day by the print media: Should they maintain their ostrich stance, ignoring changes that are battering their industry, making obsolete their old business models, and rapidly destroying their individual companies? Or should they embrace online media with their new rules and their seeming disregard of traditional ethics, standards, and ways of doing business?

While the Washington Herald is fictional, two long-term print newspapers—Daily Variety and the Financial Times, each publishing a daily edition for more than a century—are real. Both publications have been dealing with the problems caused by online competition, and each has taken a different approach to dealing with them, as news articles pointed out last month.

The first sentence of a recent New York Times article on Daily Variety, which has been a leader in covering the entertainment industry for 108 years, makes clear that this newspaper’s approach didn’t work. The sentence was short, to the point, and quite clear: “Daily Variety is dead.” And so it is, along with its companion magazine, Weekly Variety.

This newspaper that had printed stories each day—once considered a fast distribution of news—could no longer compete against digital outlets that posted and updated stories throughout the day. Its number of subscribers had dropped to about 25,000, and it was losing staff members. Some freelance writers went months without being paid for their stories.

Apparently, the only concession Daily Variety made toward the changing digital world of journalism was to start a website years ago. But that site was surrounded by a pay wall—a barrier that readers of few publications in 2009 were willing to cross. The Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 2.14.06 PMwebsite, which will remain active, is now offering readers free access to its information.

The Financial Times, a 125-year-old London newspaper covering the financial market, has taken a different approach to competition. Without giving up on its print publication, it has embraced an online future.

As a result, it has done much better than Daily Variety and, in fact, better than many print newspapers facing digital disruption. In February, The New York Times said that although the Financial Times print editions are fading, the publication “has figured out how to make significant money from new outlets, without straying from its original purpose.”

Now, the online publication has more than 300,000 subscribers, slightly more than those who get the printed edition. That’s also more than triple the number of online subscribers in 2007, when the Financial Times switched from a pay wall to a metered approach, giving online readers a number of free articles before charging them. About one-fourth of its digital subscribers are on mobile devices—which, many experts believe, hold the future of online communications. In its continuing effort to strengthen its digital offering and subscribers, the publication has just introduced its weekend mobile app.

The Financial Times sees its future as “serving a digital platform first and a newspaper second,” according to its editor. Nevertheless, it has no near-term plans to discontinue the print edition. Although print is being streamlined, it remains an important part of the Financial Times.

Apparently, the Financial Times learned some time ago that it’s less important whether its news is delivered in print or online, as long it’s accurate and timely, and its quality is beyond reproach. And it learned that its future—like that of countless newspapers across the country—depends on learning how to outsmart competitors, playing under new rules in an unfamiliar field, while continuing to play its own game.

This is a lesson the old editor on “House of Cards” and those of Daily Variety never learned.

Photo: Shutterstock/Slavoljub Pantelic