The Fate of Print Journalism in the Digital Revolution

by Brian Donlon

Doomed. Finished. Dead.
These were the words most associated with print journalism for the last decade.
In 2017, the words “resurgence” (Shepard), “renaissance” (Fineman) and “profitable” (Doctor) are often used to describe print journalism.

This change in lexicon was caused by the same force that first put print journalism in a turnaround more than 15 years ago: disruption. Except, the cause of the disruption this time was not just technology. Rather, it was the marriage of the digital and the political with the ceremony conducted in the society of celebrity, and its spawn was Donald Trump. Without question the reality TV host/real estate tycoon’s “tendency to use his Twitter account in the manner of a celebrity - by adopting an ‘off-the-cuff style’ in the tweets he publishes - was a contributing factor in the billionaire's presidential victory” (Bullman). 

Journalism – print, television or digital – had never witnessed such a political and information takeover. First as a candidate and now as the head of state, Trump has changed journalism with his scorn for the truth. “Donald Trump has both nurtured and mastered this crisis of perception, in which truth is a relative construct and facts are whatever you want them to be” (O'Heir). 

Trump’s path to the White House was built on untruths, challenging media reports as “fake news” and insulting news organizations. It gave him a victory, but did not defeat the press.  “Donald Trump calls it the ‘failing’ New York Times in his tweets, but his presidency has breathed new life into the newspaper and other mainstream media outlets. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have all received boosts in subscriptions and page views” (The Economist).

By the end of March the Times is projected to have added 500,000 new print and digital subscribers over the last six months’ period, a pace “unprecedented in U.S. history,” and The Washington Post has witnessed “a 75% increase in new subscribers” both print and digitally because of Trump (Doctor).

Growth is not limited to these two newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal report subscriber upticks. Newspaper stocks are on the rise as investors respond to the citizenry’s thirst for information.

There is an ironic twist to this resurgence of print journalism. Trump benefitted by the shift in technology as people turned to free and less reliable outlets. Some were of questionable journalistic credentials such as BreitBart (Tirelli & Diakopoulos). Others were “fake news’ sites that were propagated by social media users taking advantage of advertising profit models offered by Facebook and Google (Lee).

One “fake news” creator on Facebook, Paul Horner, was more interested in profits than politics.  “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact . . . I made that up” (Dewey).

Most media watchers thought the rise of digital platforms, social distribution, and 21st century news organizations bolstered by “user journalism” would seal the fate of print newspapers. The infiltration of “fake news” in the unreliable curation methods of Facebook has proven contrary. For all the power of digital and social media, the bulk of what is “shared” and digitized is the product of journalism produced by the more than 1,300 daily newspapers publishing print editions. Even Facebook’s founder realized the value of newspapers after the “fake news” outrage partially propagated by his site. “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties’’ (Zuckerberg).

Print journalism has two unique characteristics that distinguish it from its digital brethren. The first is the obvious, the ink and paper. The second is what it offers to consumers. When critics remark that the print content could be gotten from anywhere, they show a lack of understanding of media.

The Pentagon Papers. Watergate. The abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Archdiocese. The influence on the U.S. presidential election by Russian operatives, are all stories published by traditional newspapers. It is the kind of meaningful and impactful content that digital news upstarts have yet to mount.

“They do not cover all important news issues, nor do they pretend to. Yet they are investing in news journalism, in foreign coverage, and in investigative journalism. Further, they are attracting advertisers, investors, and in the case of Vice and BuzzFeed, the millennial audiences that are lukewarm about the legacy media’s digital offerings” (Kung).

Clearly if this past election is an indication, serious and investigative content has appeal. “The success of The Washington Post and other major newspapers in 2016 suggests that the American people are more interested in, and concerned by, national politics than ever before” (Edkins).

Investigative reporting won’t be confused with BuzzFeed’s listicles. Creating this type of content is time-consuming and often times takes several months to yield results – a stark opposite to the “here, now and share” concept of digital content. The high costs aspects of investigative enterprises may be the reason the new digital operations shy away from undertaking such endeavors.

At a Duke University media conference, it was submitted that the cost of an investigative series is a minimum of $200,000 and the totals to employ a full-time investigative “unit” for one year is $500,000 and for that price tag a newspaper should expect two or three published investigations per year, (Hamilton).

To date it is print journalism that has devoted the resources to issue-related journalism. The expense and humanpower so far are an anathema to IPO, profit- focused  millennial digital upstarts. “A long investigative article on government corruption or the resurgence of malaria in Africa would be much less likely to produce substantial ad revenues. Even if it attracts a lot of readers, a long shot in itself, it doesn’t cover a subject that advertisers want to be associated with or that would produce a lot of valuable click-throughs” (Carr). 

When futurists discuss the fate of “print journalism” the emphasis is on the print and not the journalism. It is in the role of society’s watchdog that print has produced landmark reporting from Watergate to Russian influence on the 2016 vote.

Newspapers ARE making the transition to digital and consumers are following because of the importance of the journalism. “The social media giants have shown, when it comes to the past year’s fake news and other controversies, that they neither understand nor care about journalism’s wider social responsibilities (Sambrook). 

The path is clear. The future of print journalism is about the journalism, not the print.

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Brian Donlon has spent his career in media working in programming, production and digital posts for such companies as CBS, Lifetime, Fox, MSNBC and CNBC. But prior to his work in “electronic” media, he spent more than 10 years as a reporter and editor for USA Today and the Gannett Co. utilizing his BA in Journalism from Pace University. He completed the Masters in Media Studies program at The New School in January of 2017. 

Adapted from the 2016 New School Thesis -- Mixed Media: Newspaper Survival in Digital Domains and the Reorientation of American Democracy.