The role of print media today

December 16, 2008

I grew up with newspapers.  In my family, I could find newspapers in the basement,  kitchen, living room or bathroom.

I liked reading newspapers and magazines so much that I decided to write for a living.  So in college I earned a degree in mass communications.

But there’s not so much “mass” in communications anymore.  “Niche” seems to be the operative word today.  Many newspapers today are in crisis.  Free news sources like radio, television, and now, the internet, make it easier for people not to buy paper printed with words and pictures.

But is print dead?  I don’t think so. 

Why am I optimistic?   Take a look at this and this.  I asked myself: Why would people  actually wait in line to buy their local printed newspaper of record on Nov. 5th?  I think it’s because the papers were offering people something they couldn’t get from radio, television or the internet. 

These people wanted something printed that was important to them, something they felt connected to.  These papers covered Barack Obama’s victory.   The hallmark of Obama’s campaign was it’s inclusiveness.  Because of the kind of campaign Obama ran, more Americans felt connected to the political process than ever before. 

And it showed…in the rallies…in the determination of people to stand hours in line to vote…and in the desire of people to wait in line to buy a newspaper after the election results were in.  I believe these people felt the news was about them as much as it was about Obama.  

I think those long lines to buy newspapers showed another thing: people are actually craving media that reflect their personal concerns and their personal world.  You can see it in the proliferation of electronic media, where people spend hours on blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Flickr.   But I think it doesn’t matter whether the medium is electronic, over the airwaves (like radio and television) or in print. 

People can get general, mass-media news anywhere — and they do.   I think what they want from print is a medium that reflects their personal niche.  If print does that, I think it will survive — and thrive.

In late October, I had the privilege of attending a press conference sponsored by Heidelberg USA, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of printing presses.  I was at the press conference because my of son, John.  During the press conference, Heidelberg presented John with a generous college scholarship check and an award for taking first place among high school students for graphic communications at the national SkillsUSA competition in Kansas City, Missouri.

Heidelberg’s press conference was part of the swirl of activities that took over downtown Chicago during the weekend of the Graph Expo convention at McCormick Place. 

As you’d expect, Heidelberg pays attention to trends in the print industry.  And the company shared some good news at the press conference.  Although they expect an overall drop of 10-15 percent in media buying because of the economy, they predict a 7 percent  increase in print media buys. 

Why?  They’re finding that businesses just aren’t seeing the return on investment they’d hoped for from electronic media.  There are plenty of hits, they’ve found, but not so many buys.

But the future of print, Heidelberg believes, will look a bit different, with more regional buys, smaller press runs and more direct marketing.  In other words, more niche and less mass.

And I believe that the niche trend is where newspapers need to go, too.  I believe local papers can thrive if they cover more of their niche — their local communities.  I believe local journalism should go back to basics: Names make news.  In my utopia, local papers would be filled with local stories and pictures that residents just cannot get from sources of mass media. 

Joining us for that Chicago weekend was John’s teacher, Mike Stinnett, of Royal Oak High School.  Mr. Stinnett truly loves graphic communication and printing.   He has mentored numerous ROHS students for success at SkillsUSA competitions.

On our last evening in Chicago, Mr. Stinnett wanted us to walk with him to Navy Pier to see the stained glass window collection — and to take a picture of John in front of one of the windows.  Once I saw that stained glass window, I understood why.  So I insisted on taking a picture with Mr. Stinnett, too.

So here’s to Printers — Past, Present and to Come.




  1. Here is the entirety of what the stained glass panel says:

    In Honor of Printers – Past, Present, and to Come –
    The Multipliers of Recorded Thought
    Carrying Down the Centuries the Evidence of Man’s
    Advancement in Knowledge –
    The Heralds of Peace and Goodwill –
    The Conservators of Wisdom the Antagonists of Error –
    The Champions of Good Works –
    The Glorifiers of Achievement –
    The Preservers of Art, the Promoters of Culture.

  2. How ironic that the first e-mail I opened after writing this blog was from a friend who asked me to save the sports section of our local paper because her son, a college JV basketball player, was interviewed by one of the local papers.

  3. Nice post, Cindy … I am currently at work on two pieces about this very topic, coming soon. I am not sure what to think. Too many papers around the country are cutting back or folding entirely. Too many journalist friends losing jobs in other parts of the country recently — and not expecting it. But I will hang onto your optimism!

    Sadly, there’s so much FREE content on blogs, plus news online, that my son’s generation isn’t subscribing to papers. This will be the wave of the future, by 2011, according to The Economist.

  4. Interesting piece; the biggest reason people waited in line for papers and that many papers had to make additional runs was that people wanted to own a piece of history.

    People will save those papers, many in frames, to be shown to generations to come. The first black Pres was living history and people wanted something to preserve. And you can’t get that with News.com on a laptop.

    I also lament the passing of papers. Hopefully they will survive. But the niche market that you are talking about may emerge differently. Rather than be papers that report on local issues, the will more likely be papers that represent a specific view. People tend to buy papers with a viewpoint that they agree with. Many cities already have competing papers divided by liberal/conservative lilt such as the Wash Post vs Wash
    My fear is that people will gravitate to papers they agree with, thus strenghtening thier beliefs but shielding them from opposing viewpoints and the growth that acompanies debate.
    In short, it will further divide the country along the red/blue axis.

    PS Congrats to your son, I’m sure you and your family are very proud!

  5. Hi, Cindy and Jim.

    I think you both have added a lot to this conversation. I think there’s a valid reason to believe that people do select media that reflect their point of view. When I was growing up, Detroit’s two main newspapers had a distinct “flavor”. The Detroit News, for instance, had a business section. The Detroit Free Press had a section for labor news. When I worked in Ohio, I — a city girl — edited the Farm News section of the local daily paper, which was run by Gannett. I was talking about this topic of newspapers at a writers’ group party this past weekend. I happened to mention that, at the same paper where I edited Farm News, the community was also on the shore of Lake Erie, so we would call up local marinas to find out what kind of fish (often Walleye) were biting where. We’d convert that into a blurb in the top corner of the front page — anything to get people to pull some coins out of their pocket and plunk it into the news box.

    I think two main factors have contributed to the decline of mass media. One is the rollback of the Fairness Doctrine, where media using the airwaves were required to air different viewpoints as a condition of profiting off a publicly owned resource. I think that did help expose people to different viewpoints. I believe the rollback of the Fairness Doctrine helped accelerate the atmosphere for one-sided media — regardless of what side of the fence you’re on. The second factor, I think, is the consolidation of media ownership into larger and larger corporations that have filled their pages and airtime with the bare minimum of local content, in order to save money. But now I think listeners, viewers and readers are tired of that, and want and crave stuff that matters to them. Hence, people are turning their backs on traditional media. Now a whole generation has grown up not knowing about the Fairness Doctrine or more diverse media ownership — and the competition and different voices that brings to a community. I think those two factors are killing traditional media. But I think the future now is in bottom-up, locally driven content.

    P.S. Jim, thanks for your kind words. Yes, we are very proud of what John has accomplished!

  6. My husband, Ray, sent me an e-mail with some interesting ideas. First, he attached a link to an article about newspapers using the United States Postal Service. It may not work in every case, but it might be a viable option for some. It could involve using the USPS for delivery on weekdays and relying on carriers only on Sunday, or dropping the Sunday edition for a Saturday edition that could be delivered by USPS.

    He also suggested this: “I wonder if the News/Freep considered this. However, I think I would put the presses right at (or nearby) each post office (or key ones like Royal Oak) so the papers could be easily put into the mail stream. The paper would be transmitted electronically from the newspaper. Stories/ads could even be tailored by zip code. Kind of a micro version of the USA Today distribution model. I wonder if the folks at Heidelberg have some kind of automated modular press that could be configured for small run newspaper production. In fact, the same press could print all the newspapers for a given area, for example, News/Freep, Tribune, Mirror, etc.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s