The printed paper crisis is more severe than ever. It started more than fifteen years ago, yet no-one so far has managed to come up with an effective solution to contain it. And that’s a problem from any angle you look at it – starting with the job losses.
Since 2001, the United States has experienced a 20% drop in the number of journalists, the amount of failed newspapers is uncountable and revenues just can’t seem to stop plummeting, due to the ferocious competition from the web as well as from other media. We are talking, of course, about a phenomenon that mainly involves those areas of the world where the internet has gained more traction – hence leaving out China and India, where the printed page still has an ample growth margin. Yet in our world, the Western world, traditional publishers – who are still divulging their news via printed paper – are on their knees.
Italy is no exception: as of today, little over 3.3 million copies are sold per year in our country, less than half the amount sold in 1990, when this number was 6.8 million. Still in 2007, 5.4 million copies were sold per year, then the unstoppable downfall. And let’s not forget that newspaper sales are directly proportional to readers’ possibility to come up with their own opinion about the facts, and are hence directly related to democracy. The internet cannot provide the same article depth we find in printed newspapers, but it does score points for the immediacy of news diffusion – not a small advantage in a time of such accelerated consumption and continuous distractions. If, however, the digital divide seems to be narrowing, the press divide appears to be going in the opposite direction, with the number of Italians taking their information from both audiovisual media and printed newspaper dropping from 42.8% to 24.9% over the last three years. Another national datum: over the last decade, in Italy 1 out of 4 newsstands has disappeared, for a total of around 10.000 businesses. We could go on and on listing the facts and figures of this collapse, but that’s not my purpose today.
I want to share, instead, the data disclosed this year by Richard Tofel, president of Pro Publica, former assistant publisher at the Wall Street Journal and former Dow Jones communication vice-president. Tofel tells us that, in the United States, only 2 newspapers currently sell more than 500.000 copies on an average week day, and these are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Just 7 newspapers exceed 250.000 copies, and about 20 reach 100.000.
These numbers don’t leave much room for hope, as it would appear the decline has yet to reach its nadir and most importantly its containment. Sale drops bring along ad revenue drops, which in turn force publishers to reduce costs, starting with cuts in the number of correspondents and with the adoption, for new hires, of highly penalizing contracts – a situation that cannot but reflect on the quality of the background research and in-depth study, which are probably the only elements that could save printed papers from their dim fate.