Printing press vs. the Internet

By John Toth

A long time ago when I worked for the Houston Chronicle, before the Internet began to dominate the news cycle, my company car was sideswiped by a truck trying to beat the red light.

The next day I drove up to the Chronicle, gave them the car, and I got another one.

Those were the days when newspapers made a lot of money, and there were several in almost every city. They competed for ad dollars and news, and it was all very exciting.

Then, the bottom fell out as the Internet took over. I opened The Bulletin on July 4, 1994, and watched from the sidelines how the dailies were being devastated.

First, they closed their eyes to the changes taking place that were about to drain the life right out of them. Then, they were slow to act once they saw the problem. Then, they acted, but it was too little, too late.

But, there is hope once again. A Los Angeles Times story moving over my news wire caught my attention because after all these years of reading reports that the papers are taking a pounding, this article actually had some good news for those who publish the news.

“Circulation revenue for daily newspapers grew in 2012 for the first time in a decade as more people paid to subscribe to digital editions, according to data compiled by the Newspaper Association of America.”

This is great. Newspapers are going digital, and they are finding ways to increase profits.

But papers that have gone totally digital have cut production staff. You need fewer people to run a digital operation than actually print a paper. Many big dailies also have cut deep into the newsroom, even requiring staff to take unpaid leave for a week or two at a time.

But, at least, the article dealt with the fact that dailies are making money the new way rather than complaining.

Let’s face it. Reading printed words on a piece of paper has been around for a very long time, and the way those words find their way on the paper has not changed much.

But, neither has the internal combustion engine, because it was also a great invention. Sure, they made it better, more fuel efficient, but the basic principle of exploding fuel inside a container and using that energy to turn a wheel has not changed.

The printing press is in this category of inventions. It has been made better and more colorful, but the basic concept has remained the same. That’s why these two things and other such inventions have been around for this long.

But it’s time for a change, right? Time to put down the newspaper and link into the paper’s website.

I used to joke around staff meetings that as long there are trees, there will be newspapers. The Bulletin has been around for 19 years, and we’re infants compared to how long some of the other weeklies and area dailies have been here. And, we are survivors. Seveeral of our counterparts are gone.

For a while, it looked like the bleeding could not be stopped, and eventually, print would go by the way of the horse and buggy. I still see some of those around, by the way.

There was a lot of truth behind my joke about newspapers and trees. Paper is a renewable resource. A computer is not. Much of what it takes to make a computer is a one-time-use item. Once you make it, it cannot be grown back. Trees can, and they do, and that means that we have an endless supply of paper as long as we make sure that there are plenty of trees around.

So, I reiterate my joke and make it a factual statement. Newspapers will be around for a long time because they can. Printing presses can be fixed, paper grows on trees (they are trees), and someone like myself can always be found to put some printed words on them.

“The detailed look at the industry’s financial foundation showed gradual shifts. For example, print ads made up nearly 50 percent of the industry’s revenue in 2011. Last year, print ads contributed 46 percent of the total. Circulation revenue made up 27 percent of the total last year, up from 26 percent the previous year.”

OK, so the picture is not as positive as we in the business would like. But it’s better than free-falling and panicking. Still, it ain’t over until all the trees disappear, and if that happens, we’ll have other problems much greater than ad revenues falling.

Not everyone has an electronic gadget on which to browse a newspaper site. A lot of us still like to open up the paper. A lot of us still like to read the investigative pieces in a daily paper that you won’t see anywhere else. A lot of us just like the newspaper to keep an eye on things, because we’re too busy to do it ourselves.

By the way, the Chronicle did away with company cars shortly after I left to start The Bulletin. They were cutting back, I suppose, to prepare to buy out the Post for $150 million. I guess a few company cars fell victim in the process.

What is so ironic is that a few years later, the Post could have been purchased for a lot less after it likely would have failed because of that new fancy thingy called ... the Internet.