Commentary: Joel Kaplan on the future of print newspapers

August 29, 2018

On Saturday, Aug. 25, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reduced print publication to five days a week, making Pittsburgh the largest U.S. city without a daily print newspaper. Professor Joel Kaplan comments on the change. 

The decision by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to go to five-days-a-week print publication makes Pittsburgh the largest city in the country without a true daily newspaper.

But the larger question this move makes is, what is the future of print when it comes to newspapers across the country?

The reasoning behind this move is clear: most people now gets their news digitally through their phones or tablets (when was the last time you saw scores of newspapers at the airport?), and the cost of newsprint—due in part to new tariffs—is quickly becoming prohibitive for newspapers to actually use paper.

So these changes are forcing newspapers to reinvent themselves. Some have become very successful, like The New York Times and The Washington Post. For those newspapers, the added revenue from digital subscriptions is actually offsetting the loss of advertising revenue from their declining print publications.

But both The Post and The Times are major newspapers with a national following.

Papers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other medium and large city newspapers are finding it difficult to follow that model. For one, most of their readers are still reluctant to pay for content. And the cost of printing and distributing newspapers to a declining circulation base is proving to be problematic.

So those newspapers are trying to thread the needle. Cut back on the print product and try to get their aging readership to go digital.

To some extent it is a smart strategy. They retain the revenue they receive from print ads on those days that they publish but also slowly move their readership to embrace an online only experience.

So you have many newspapers going to three days a week publication but still serving the community seven days a week. That is the case with the Newhouse-owned publications and many other newspapers across the country,

This model should work for the next three to five years. The real question is whether these newspapers will be able to get enough revenue through subscription fees and online ads when they eventually are forced to go fully digital. The other question is whether they will be able to do that without decimating their staff because a newspaper without reporters or editors is not much of a newspaper at all.

Joel Kaplan is associate dean for professional graduate studies and a professor of newspaper and online journalism at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. A former investigative journalist, he covered city hall for the Chicago Tribune and was a member of the newspaper's investigative team.