In 2013, the Center predicted that most printed newspapers had five years of life left. Their survival turns out to be more delayed than we thought.
By Jeffrey Cole 
In a previous column , I discussed one of my most controversial (and viral) predictions: looking at MySpace, Facebook, and Snapchat, and how it would prove impossible for them to hang on to their teenage users. That prediction came to pass exactly as we thought it would.
In this column, I cover another controversial prediction: in 2012, I said that print newspapers in America had five years left. This prediction has turned out to be only partly correct.
Thirty years ago, teenagers did not read print newspapers, but started to when they got into their 20s and 30s. Today, teenagers don’t read newspapers, and the evidence is clear that they never will.
Many critics argue teenagers have no interest beyond anything they read on Instagram or Snapchat. Nothing could be further from the truth; polling shows that teenagers today are more interested in news than any previous teenage generation. They understand more than those who came before that what happens halfway around the world can greatly affect their lives.
But they aren’t going to newspapers for that information.
In 2002, I said, “every time a printed newspaper reader dies, he or she is not being replaced by a new reader.” That has turned out to be completely correct. We saw that trend accelerate over the subsequent eight or nine years.
In 2009, the recession was having a massive impact on the advertising pages of America’s newspapers. Major advertisers (department stores for example) were consolidating or going out of business, and buying far less advertising. The most profitable advertising parts of newspapers: used cars, apartment or homes for rent or sale, or employment left newspapers for Craig’s List and other sites on the internet, never to return to print.
Newspaper circulation dropped consistently between 2000 and 2016. A Pew-Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) analysis showed that in 2016, print circulation dropped 10 percent — the 18th consecutive year of decline. At the same time, digital subscriptions grew impressively. The New York Times now has well over 2.5 million digital-only subscriptions. The beginning of the Trump presidency has greatly increased digital circulation at the nation’s major newspapers.
Jeff Bezos, currently the richest person in the world, stepped in to buy the Washington Post, while the ailing Los Angeles Times was recently bought by the wealthiest man in Southern California. Two well-regarded newspapers, The Guardian in the U.K. and the Tampa Bay Times, are controlled by foundations not subject to the pressures of investors. The billionaire or foundation papers are winning Pulitzer Prizes and doing better journalism than ever.
We saw all these trends (except the Trump victory) in 2012. Newspapers were closing, some were going to digital-only editions, and print was continuing to decline. Leading publishers, including Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of The New York Times, predicted they could see a day, not too far off, when the print edition would disappear.
We believed that print would disappear long before the print readership declined to zero. When only five to ten print readers (instead of 20 or 30) remained on a block in Long Island or in Beverly Hills, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times would look at delivery costs (as well as printing costs) and pull the plug on the printed edition.
The prediction in 2012 was:
- Almost all printed newspapers would disappear in the United States in the next five years.
- The country would be left with three of four “national” newspapers that would continue to print physical editions somewhat longer than five years. We named those papers as The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, the Washington Post and, maybe, USA Today.
- More than four newspapers would survive in the long-term as digital papers.
The predictions received a tremendous amount of attention. Looking at the title of our Center (The Center for the Digital Future), many assumed we were anti-print. One editor went as far as to offer a wager of $50,000 that I was wrong that print only had five years left. My job is to make informed predictions, not to take bets, and as a newspaper lover my only comment was, “if I take the bet, I hope I lose.”
In 2018, the evidence strongly supports all the trends we saw in 2012. Print is declining, and newspapers are disappearing. But, the five-year prediction was wrong. A surprising number of newspapers still survive in 2018. Some, like the Los Angeles Times (once one of the nation’s premiere newspapers), have looked more sick and anemic year after year as they have been shuffled from owner to owner.
One healthy development that we did not see in 2012 was billionaires stepping in to save newspapers, whether out of civic pride or personal ego. Wall Street never approved of Rupert Murdoch’s love affair with his newspapers and argued that print was depressing the value of his film and television empire.
Many critics argue teenagers have no interest beyond anything they read on Instagram or Snapchat. Nothing could be further from the truth; polling shows that teenagers today are more interested in news than any previous teenage generation. They understand that what happens halfway around the world can greatly affect their lives.
To keep the newspapers healthy, Murdoch divided his company in two: News Corp was the entity with the newspapers and 21st Century Fox got the studio and network (some of which he is now selling to Disney). Some see rich irony in that it was the “most valuable” assets that Murdoch sold first. In order to prop up his beloved newspapers, Murdoch gave them valuable sports properties and the lucrative FoxTel in Australia. Against all economic sense, he keeps the newspapers. After he leaves the scene, the newspapers will probably be put on the block within 48 hours.
Jeff Bezos, currently the richest person in the world, stepped in to buy the Washington Post, while the ailing Los Angeles Times was recently bought by the wealthiest man in Southern California. Two well-regarded newspapers, The Guardian in the U.K. and the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times), are controlled by foundations not subject to the pressures of investors. All the billionaire or foundation papers are winning Pulitzer Prizes and doing better journalism than ever. (It’s too early for the Los Angeles Times, which was bought in the past 60 days).
The advertising that newspapers lost during the recession never came back when the economy improved. Circulation for print continues to decline, and more newspapers are moving to digital-only. Even the biggest newspapers will eventually cease printing.
Everything about the prediction was correct except the timing. No excuses, we were wrong. I am glad that I didn’t take the bet. As a reader of four daily newspapers, I am happy. The trends are still ominous, and every newspaper cannot be bought by a benevolent billionaire.
The best trend of all is that a controversial president has greatly increased interest in news (both newspapers and television). When people want to know what is happening in their world they go to professional journalists. There is even a movement in 2018 to scrub Facebook and as much of the internet as possible of “fake” news.
Everything about the future of newspapers is bright except the future of holding the paper in our hands.
Jeffrey Cole  is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the Center .
March 7, 2018