The Decline and Fall of Print Media

It’s a digital world. Anyone who has recently lamented the demise of yet another local newspaper can tell you that. It’s the central message of Gannet Co.’s (NYSE:GCI) fourth-quarter earnings statement — print media is sadly coming to an end.

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Gannet, the publisher of USA Today and dozens of smaller newspapers, posted dismal earnings for its old-media holdings on Monday morning. Quarterly profits declined 33 percent while ad revenue fell 7 percent in the newspaper division over the last year.

Those newspapers lucky enough to survive are doing so at a cost. Many are cutting back on staff writers, relying more on syndicated content, and largely becoming digital operations.

While papers like the New York Times (NYSE:NYT) and Washington Post (NYSE:WPO), institutions that have been around since the nineteenth century, may still be alive, they’re facing increased competition from online media such as AOL’s (NYSE:AOL) Huffington Post and Interactive Corp.’s (NASDAQ:IACI) Daily Beast that can offer bite-sized, sensationalized news stories that draw in readers and help them steal advertising revenue from more traditional media outlets.

It’s not all bad — the digital era has given rise to new voices. Anyone with a computer can start a blog, and anyone with an opinion can find a receptive audience.

Movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ can publish their own stories rather than relying on the media to get it right, while any and all perspectives, no matter how extreme, now at least have a voice.

The shift also means that information is flowing more quickly and freely than ever. Digital subscriptions to American newspapers are available all around the world, and instead of relying on twice-daily reporting — morning and evening editions — the stream of new information is constant for anyone with access to a computer, smartphone, or tablet.

And despite heightened competition online, Gannett reported a 9.4 percent increase in digital revenue in the most recent quarter. The revenue gains may not be enough to compensate for the revenue weakness at the flagship newspaper brand, but it seems the company may at least be able to postpone its demise.

As a forest fire clears the way for new growth, so too will the demise of print media give rise to a new generation of reporting. The results may be mixed — with many online publications putting less of an emphasis on quality journalism and sophisticated prose — but they will no doubt birth a better-informed and therefore more skeptical audience capable of distinguishing sentiment from cold, hard facts.

While some readers will always seek out voices that only echo their own, many will have the opportunity to have their beliefs challenged, forcing them to become more aware of their own prejudices and either relinquish them or more fully root them in fact.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Knapp at staff.writers@wallstcheatsheet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Damien Hoffman at editors@wallstcheatsheet.com