Newspapers in the U.S. have been on the decline for decades. A clear reminder of this trend arrived on March 2, as Maine’s largest newspaper publisher, Masthead Maine, ended production of the Monday print editions for four of its newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, due to significant drops in newsstand sales. While many in the U.S. may be dedicated to printed news, news providers’ best chance of survival lies in investing in digital media formats before their audiences move on from them entirely.
Research on the steady decline of printed news dates back to the 1970s, and it has propagated a long-standing belief that the problem has been related to the writing style of journalists and the topics they cover. Arizona State researcher Leslie-Jean Thornton believes that these studies, by and for newspapers, reflect a misplacement of priorities: “readership itself may not have been the problem; newspaper readership was.” With the rise in digital readership over the course of the 2000s via social media and online subscriptions to news providers, it has become clear that the audience for quality news coverage still exists.
Although news organizations are surviving on revenue print and digital subscriptions, along with significantly reduced advertising revenues, many journalists are facing the possibility of losing their jobs. According to the Pew Research Center, employment in the newspaper industry fell 14% from 2015 to 2018, and a study by the University of North Carolina says that one in five newspapers have gone out of business since 2004. More and more news organizations are leaning on direct audience revenue via subscriptions, but this means that the newspapers face an entirely new challenge of incentivizing that kind of investment.
One way that some news organizations are standing out and drawing in new members is by investing in new media formats, a significant example being podcasts. According to Forbes, there are 62 million Americans listening to 800,000 podcast series. These numbers may raise concerns about oversaturation, but much like newspapers, each podcast is marketed to a specific audience, and there are endless niches to fill. Many news podcasts have taken the form of bite-sized, daily briefing-style reports, offering a more robust replacement for skimming headlines on one’s phone or in the paper. The New York Times’ “The Daily” and NPR’s “Up First” are two extremely successful examples of news providers recognizing the changing preferences of consumption of their audiences.
Podcasts don’t just have to exist on the national scale either; Maine Public has its own daily briefing podcast, “This Day in Maine,” and even the Maine Campus now has its own official podcast, “Anecdote,” focusing on the experiences of students at the University of Maine. Podcasts do not only serve as another means to attract subscribers or donations. They can also generate significant revenue through advertising. According to Forbes, some popular podcasts charge advertisers as much as two to three times the ad rate for radio.
News organizations need to come to a clear understanding that their trade is news, not papers. There are more effective mediums by which publishers can get their product to their audience and draw their investment. It does not just have to be podcasts. It can be YouTube videos, social media updates, email newsletters, memes or literally anything else besides the outdated and wasteful print format. It may be difficult for publishers to change their identities in such a significant way, but if they don’t move on from their outdated format then there won’t be anything left to change.