This is big: The New Orleans Times-Picayune announced today that it will cease publishing daily, and will come out three times a week — in print. It will continue to cover the daily news on its website. Massive layoffs are coming at the paper.

This is the coming thing, all over: the shift to digital media. As far as I know, though, this is the first time a daily paper of this size has made a shift so significant. On the comments thread under the New York Times’s report on this development, folks are blaming big bad corporate media for this. For example:

No better example could be offered for the devastating impact corporate America has had on the publishing industry. Newspapers are local. They serve local interests, report local stories, inform local readers. Advanced Publications, a national company with more than 30 papers on its rolls, has absolutely no perspective to make such a significant decision for the city. They’re protecting their own balance sheet, not the interests of New Orleans. As commenters above said, access to the news should not require a $50/mo internet service and a $600 iPad. Cities need to take back their newspapers from the vampires of high finance. But I fear it’s too late…

This is crazy. People like this seem to have this idea that the newspaper is like a public utility, or a charity. Believe me, newspaper reporters and editors complain endlessly about the mistakes management has made over the past 10 to 20 years, and Lord knows there have been plenty. But in the end, facts are facts, and the facts are that fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers. I don’t know a single person under the age of 40 who subscribes to the paper. When I worked for the Dallas Morning News, our publisher took us all into a hotel ballroom one afternoon and spent a couple of hours giving us a slideshow presentation of the dire fiscal situation facing the paper, and the entire newspaper industry, which was in collapse. He showed us this so we would know exactly the kind of challenge he and others in leadership were facing. Whatever errors in judgment newspaper executives have made over the past decade or so, it is impossible for me to see how any strategy could have replaced those lost subscribers.

Notice I said “subscribers,” not readers — because readership for newspaper websites continues to rise, even as the subscriber numbers fall. There is no question but that print is going to cease to exist, and nearly all newspapers will be delivered digitally one day. The difficulty — and it’s a massive one — is making people pay for the digital product, or in some other way to come up with a sustainable business model.

The Pew Center’s 2012 report on the State of the Media is blunt:

The problems of newspapers also became more acute in 2011. Even as online audiences grew, print circulation continued to decline. Even more critically, so did ad revenues. In 2011, losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to 1, a ratio even worse than in 2010. When circulation and advertising revenue are combined, the newspaper industry has shrunk 43% since 2000.

I have to laugh nastily at the NYT’s reader’s griping about how the news will now only be available to people who can afford expensive devices like computers and smartphones. For one thing, many teenagers from economically deprived families where I live have smartphones. The price on those devices will continue to come down. For another, I have seen internal research reports from newspapers trying to determine who their readers are. The poor and the working class by and large do not buy the newspaper, period. Subscribers are heavily concentrated among older people, wealthier people, and suburban people. This idea that suddenly the poor folks in New Orleans are without a source of news because of the One Percent is horsesh*t.

I thought I would be one of the last holdouts of my generation regarding printed newspapers, but my wife and I switched from print to digital a couple of years ago. It was awkward at first, but we got used to it. Given the digital way I interact with media — posting stories to my blog, sending them to friends, sometimes putting them out on social media — it made more sense. I wish there were also a print component for people who prefer that, but newspapers are neither public utilities nor charities. The cost of creating and distributing newspapers on newsprint makes them increasingly unviable as a business. This is the fault of changing technology and changing habits. It is not the fault of the One Percent.

On the other hand, I don’t read the Times-Pic — it’s not available in my part of Louisiana — and I just got an e-mail from a friend in New Orleans who said he’s not sorry to see the paper suffer. He says they’re “arrogant bastards” who have bullied people and misreported stories that he knows about. Maybe so. Again, I’m not saying by any stretch that newspapers haven’t played a role in their own demise (ask three reporters in a bar what’s to blame for the state of newspapers, and you’ll get thirty opinions, usually involving Those SOBs In Some Other Part Of The Paper).

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