For anybody who has followed the news over the past few years (and, let's be honest, you were probably reading it on a computer), the long-awaited demise of newspapers shouldn't come as much of a surprise. But on Wednesday, the bell tolled once again for the printed word when the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for the Digital Future offered some prophesies for the future of media. High on the list was a chilling prediction: Within five years, the report claimed, only four major daily papers will continue in print form.
According to Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the center, the four survivors will be The New York Times (NYT), The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post (WPO) and USA Today. It's worth noting that two of these papers -- the Times and the Journal -- already charge for online content. Within the next year, USA Today also plans to start charging, which will leave The Washington Post as the only one of the big four offering its content for free.
Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli and publisher Katherine Weymouth both emphasize that the newspaper has no plans to erect a paywall in the foreseeable future. It's worth noting that the Post has weathered its financial storms better than most dailies: Its Kaplan educational subsidiary has remained largely profitable, helping to stabilize the paper's finances. Coupled with major cutbacks -- the Post has closed all but two of its regional suburban bureaus and almost halved its reporter corps -- this has sufficed to stem the loss of revenue.
Part of the reason for the Post's relative success is that it is one of the rare national papers that also has a strong local audience. In his discussion of the future of newspapers, Annenberg's Cole offered a caveat: "We believe that the only print newspapers that will survive will be at the extremes of the medium – the largest and the smallest." In many ways, the Post is both -- a paper with a huge national readership that is also widely read by its hometown crowd. As Politico recently noted, the Post has 30% market penetration in the Washington D.C. area; by comparison, The New York Times' hometown readership percentage numbers are in the single digits.
For media watchers, the demise of newspapers has become a grim joke; one website, Newspaper Death Watch, keeps a running commentary on the bleakness of the print media wasteland. While the increased online presence of many papers offers some hope for the future, lingering questions remain about what the death of papers will mean for the news. As Cole asks, "How will the changing delivery of content affect the quality and depth of journalism?" Stay tuned.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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