Are Newspapers Dying or Adapting in the Age of Digital News Consumption?

Some Say the Internet Will Kill Off Papers. Others Say Not So Fast.

Mature man reading newspaper
Westend61/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Are newspapers dying?

That’s the raging debate in the news business 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.

Hold on, says another group of folks. Newspapers have been with us for hundreds of years, and while all news may someday be online, papers have plenty of life in them yet.

So who’s right? I’ll outline the arguments on both sides, then you can decide.

Newspapers Are Dead

Newspapers are in trouble. Circulation is dropping, display and classified ad revenue is drying up, and the industry in recent years has experienced an unprecedented wave of layoffs. Big metro papers like the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have gone under, and even bigger newspaper companies like the Tribune Co. 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, while newspapers no longer have the huge profit margins they did in the 1990s, many remain profitable. Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, says the widespread newspaper industry layoffs of a few years ago 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.”

Ironically, years after the digital pundits started predicting the demise of print, newspapers still get the vast majority of their revenue - as much as 90 percent - from print advertising.

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 for online news sites to survive, they’ll need an as-yet undiscovered business model.

One possibility may be paywalls, which many newspapers and news websites are increasingly using to generate much-needed revenue. A recent Pew Research Center study found that paywalls have been adopted at 450 of the country's 1,380 dailies and seem to be effective not just at The New York Times but at smaller papers.

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 - meaning papers don't have to rely as much as they once did on advertising revenue.

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

Follow me on Facebook , Twitter or Google Plus , and sign up for my journalism newsletter.