'Net teaches print another lesson

How thoroughly has the Internet come to torment the dying industry that is print newspaper publishing?

So thoroughly that even a rare moment in the sun for print last week was overshadowed, at least in part, by the 800-pound online gorilla.

Perhaps you saw the reports: Newspapers nationwide couldn't spin their ancient presses fast enough to crank out extra copies and special editions trumpeting the news that Barack Obama had been elected president. Television news programs aired images of people literally lining up around the Washington Post building to buy a piece of history printed on dead trees.

Impressive, sure … but how 20th Century.

Meanwhile, mere hours later, sellers on eBay were asking $400 for a single copy of that day's New York Times (by the next morning, market saturation had knocked that price down to about $100). Lesser but still substantial sums were being offered for keepsake editions of lesser but still substantial metro dailies.

So in essence you have the ink-stained wretches doing all the production work and collecting all the grubby little quarters from those lines of loyal readers/speculators … and then watching the real money change hands online.

Still, considering all the abuse heaped upon newspapers these days, it was nice to see them bask in a bit of reflected glory from Obama's historic accomplishment. They, of course, will be happy about the additional revenue, however modest it may look in comparison to the go-go after-market on eBay.

But there were indications that the print barons still don't know what's hitting them: "This kind of demand for our newspapers is unlike anything we've experienced in recent history," said one newspaper executive. "This is a clear demonstration that people continue turning to their local newspaper to help them understand and interpret the news of the day, and that is especially true when big events happen."

No, this is a clear demonstration that readers cannot stash a Web site into a keepsake drawer.

And it only gets worse

This will seem blindingly obvious to my fellow political junkies but may surprise those who lead more well rounded (dare I say normal?) lives: The Internet has surpassed newspapers and trails only television as the primary source of political news for most Americans, according to a recent report from Pew Research.

In addition, the percentage of Americans who say they receive most of their political news from the Internet has more than tripled -- from 10% to 33% -- in only the past four years. Meanwhile, those saying the same of television and newspapers has remained largely unchanged (respondents were allowed to pick a top two).

From Pew: "Not surprisingly, the Internet is a considerably more popular source for campaign news among younger Americans than among older ones. Nearly three times as many people ages 18 to 29 mention the Internet as mention newspapers as a main source of election news (49% vs. 17%). Nearly the opposite is true among those over age 50: Some 22% rely on the Internet for election news while 39% look to newspapers. Compared with 2004, use of the Internet for election news has increased across all age groups. Among the youngest cohort (age 18 to 29), TV has lost significant ground to the Internet."

In other words, television news executives ought not be snickering about the plight of their print publishing brethren.

Think about where these trends will have taken us by the next time we elect a president.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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