Are Newspapers Dead or Adapting in the Age of Digital News?

Some say the Internet will kill off papers, but others say not so fast

Mature man reading newspaper
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Are newspapers dying? That’s the raging debate these days. Many say the demise of the daily paper is just a matter of time – and not much time at that. The future of journalism is in the digital world of websites and apps – not newsprint – they say.

But wait. Another group of folks insist that newspapers have been with us for hundreds of years, and although all news may someday be found online, papers have plenty of life in them yet.

So who’s right? Here are the arguments so you can decide.

Newspapers Are Dead

Newspaper circulation is dropping, display and classified ad revenue is drying up, and the industry has experienced an unprecedented wave of layoffs in recent years. Big metro papers like the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have gone under, and even bigger newspaper companies like the Tribune Company have been in bankruptcy.

Gloomy business considerations aside, the dead-newspaper people say the Internet is just a better place to get news. “On the web, newspapers are live, and they can supplement their coverage with audio, video, and the invaluable resources of their vast archives,” says Jeffrey I. Cole, director of USC's s Digital Future Center. “For the first time in 60 years, newspapers are back in the breaking news business, except now their delivery method is electronic and not paper.”

Conclusion: The Internet will kill off newspapers.

Papers Aren't Dead – Not yet, Anyway

Yes, newspapers are facing tough times, and yes, the Internet can offer many things that papers can’t. But pundits and prognosticators have been predicting the death of newspapers for decades. Radio, TV and now the Internet were all supposed to kill them off, but they’re still here.

Contrary to expectations, many newspapers remain profitable although they no longer have the huge profit margins they did in the 1990s. Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, says the widespread newspaper industry layoffs of the last decade should make papers more viable. “At the end of the day, these companies are operating more leanly now,” Edmonds said. “The business will be smaller and there may be more reductions, but there should enough profit there to make a viable business for some years to come.”

Years after the digital pundits started predicting the demise of print, newspapers still take significant revenue from print advertising, but it declined from $60 billion to about $20 billion between 2010 and 2015. 

And those who claim that the future of news is online and only online ignore one critical point: Online ad revenue alone just isn’t enough to support most news companies. So online news sites will need an as-yet undiscovered business model to survive. 

One possibility may be paywalls, which many newspapers and news websites are increasingly using to generate much-needed revenue. A Pew Research Center study found that paywalls have been adopted at 450 of the country's 1,380 dailies and they seem to be effective.

That study also found that the success of paywalls combined with print subscription and single-copy price increases has led to a stabilization – or, in some cases, even an increase in revenues from circulation. So papers don't have to rely as much as they once did on advertising revenue.

Until someone figures out how to make online news sites profitable, newspapers aren't going anywhere.