The “newspaper extinction timeline” sucks

Newspaper_Timeline_frontWe had Ted Tuner predicting in 1981 that newspapers would die within 12 years (in 2006 – not in any way hindered by his own mistakes – he said it would happen within 20 years).

We had Philip Meyer predicting that in 2043 no American would read a newspaper every day (although many would read one almost every day).

We had NYT CEO Arthur Sulzberger saying that the New York Times will eventually have to stop printing (without saying when).

And now we have ‘futurist’ Ross Dawson saying that all newspapers (except those in Benin, Madagascar, Paraguay, Belarus, Honduras and some other exotic places) will die within 30 years. The list of ’survivors’ should have made anybody suspicious, but strangely enough the graph was included or referred to on numerous websites and blogs – mostly without too many questions asked.

Dawson even predicted the death of newspapers in Russia, which is extraordinary, as predictions should be based on data – and there are no data on newspaper circulation in Russia, but Dawson even predicted that extinction would be different in rural and metropolitan areas. Amazing!

Countries like Canada, Australia and New Zeeland – known for having a very healthy circulation development or showing only marginal losses – were on Dawson’s death list for 2020, 2022 and 2024.

How did he do that? What were his data? On what were his theories based? No information on that except that “mobile”, “tablets”, “demography”, “technology” etc. could play a role… wow, I wish I would have thought of that.

I did my own ‘extinction’ predictions, but this time with real data and explaining how I did it.

I selected the UK, a country were newspapers will become “insignificant” (no info on what that means on Dawsons website) in 2019.

Anyone with an excel-sheet can make predictions. Its no rocket science.

I took the UK circulation data (paid and free papers – and only paid papers) from 2004 to 2009 and calculated the average changes over those 5 years, but also over 2005-2009, 2006-2009, 2007-2009 and 2008-2009.  This percentage I used to calculate the losses until 2050 (meaning that I used a fixed percentage – you could do that different of course, increasing the percentage).

For all (free and paid) newspapers I came to this (click to enlarge). The average losses over the last years are bigger, so those lines decrease faster. But even with 5% loss every year, circulation will be around 10 millon in 2019 – not very insignificant in my book.

ukpaidfree20042050

When we only consider paid newspapers, UK circulation with fall from 14 million now to below 10 million copies between 2015 and 2020 (decline percentages between 3 and 6). With a 6% decline every year, paid circulation will be less than 5 million in 2027.

UKpaidpapers20042050

It’s like Disraeli said: “there are lies, big lies, statistics and futurists”.

These graphs, called “UK papers will be around for many years” will hardly be as popular as Dawson’s of course.

15 Responses to “The “newspaper extinction timeline” sucks”

  1. Dan Thornton Says:

    While I try to stay away from finite predictions due to the fact we can never take into account all the random factors which can play into educated guesses, I’d agree that circulation indicates a longer lifespan for newspapers.

    But I’d also suggest that calculations based on a constant percentage decline are also prone to error – for instance, declines are likely to increase as circulations drop due to a drop in advertising revenue, leading to less investment, cuts in editorial levels, marketing budgets, distribution etc.

    My own guess is that print as a medium will never ‘die’, but will level out at a sustainable level for a niche business for a long while as a product which provides a physical memento of a moment in time which people will generally follow in digital formats as an actual news source…

  2. Piet Bakker Says:

    Hi Dan,

    thanks for that comment, indeed a more flexible percentage would be better. For Europe (21 major constant markets) you indeed see decline increasing. Between -1 and -2% from 1995 to 2004, around -4% in the last years.

    So it would be sound to expect a 5% average decline in some years. But going beyond 10 or 15 years is really speculation.

  3. Martin Belam Says:

    I think a big factor at play is that decreasing circulation makes national distribution increasingly expensive. And the less players you have in a market, the less economical it becomes to keep the whole national distribution chain going. And once you can distribute to less places, obviously you can sell less copies.

    Personally, I’d expect to see national print newspapers in the UK survive beyond 2019. But then I look at my one year old daughter, and I can’t really ever imagine her sitting down at a desktop computer rather than using some kind of touchscreen device, and therefore I really can’t imagine her ever buying a daily print news product. So 2019, yes. 2029? Not sure at all…

  4. 2027: RIP Nederlandse kranten (of niet?) « De nieuwe reporter Says:

    [...] Piet Bakker zet op zijn weblog grote vraagtekens bij de voorspellingen van Dawson. Hij slaat aan het rekenen met de oplagecijfers [...]

  5. Olivier Guy Says:

    It seems that you have slightly enhanced the Mark Twain’s quotation : “There are lies, damn lies and statistics” . I don’t remember any futurist was mentioned at all…

  6. danny bloom Says:

    An Open Letter to Ross Watson — On the Future of News Media
    November 1, 2010

    Dear Ross,

    According to your analysis of the future of printed newspapers, they are slated to go the way of the dodo bird in the next ten years in some advanced industrial and gadget-addicted countries, followed by further extinctions of daily snailpapers — printed on dead-tree newsprint — later this century. Your keen analysis suggests that traditional media could be dead as early as 2017 in certain regions of the world, according to your gone-viral Newspaper Extinction Timeline, which reveals that the emergence of tablet devices and other ways of “screening” the news will see the extinction of traditional newspaper media by 2017 in the USA, followed by the UK and Iceland — where the funeral is set for 2019 — and then Canada and Norway in 2020.

    Italy’s snailpapers go extinct, you say, in 2027, while France goes in 2029 and Germany in 2030. They are followed by Japan, Taiwan and China in 2031.

    “Every country is different,” you tell me. “The pace of change in media structure is being led by the US and UK, with other countries not so far behind.”

    Roy Greenslade at the Guardian in the UK has posted his reaction to the dodo bird timeline, quoting Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association, who blogged: “What would you do today if you knew when your print newspaper would die?”

    Mr Greenslade, as you know, posted a thinkpost on what he called your “astonishingly bold – and arguably, foolish – prediction … that newsprint will die in Britain in 2019, ahead of the death of newspapers in a further 51 countries by 2040.”

    Mr Greenslade noted that, naturally, your PR hype attracted, not surprisingly, a lot of skeptical comment. Piet Bakker’s response, on the thread, was the most trenchant, Greenslade said, quoting Mr Bakker’s two-line shout-out: “It’s basically crap, no data are given, and what is ‘insignificant’. Serious journalism should not fall for B.S. like this.”

    Mr Greenslade’s take-home is that Bakker’s rant summed up many people’s feelings. But he confessed himself, saying, in parentheses: “Incidentally, though I didn’t say it, I am convinced that there will be plenty of newspapers in Britain in 2019. I may agree that we’re marching slowly towards the death of ["snailpapers"], but Dawson’s time-scale is hopelessly wrong.”

    But to be fair and balanced, Mr Greenslade also quoted an industry expert, Earl Wilkinson, executive director and chief executive of the International Snailpaper Marketing Association, as saying: “What I like about Dawson’s nudge is that it reminds us that the clock is ticking. We can’t work fast enough at the corporate level or the industry level to develop digital platforms that connect with readers and advertisers.
    We can’t work fast enough to build multi-media companies where print, online, mobile, iPad and others each play to their strengths and interact.
    Just as we were warned in the 1990s that classified advertising could disappear and we need to prepare for that, we need to be preparing today for an all-digital future — whether that comes in 2025, 2050, 2100, or some year beyond the reach of our great-grandchildren.”

    Greenslade then quoted Wilkinson’s money quote, which is worth repeating here: “If a few dates assigned to something we’re already focused on contribute 1 percent additional urgency to our industry’s transformation from snailpaper to multi-media and the structure of our news ecology… then we can thank Ross Dawson for his contribution.”

    Now, Ross, there is one thing you have overlooked entirely, and this gaffe is huge and possibly world-shaking. Please listen to me carefully here, because nobody is saying what I am about to say, and the few people who have heard me say it already on countless blogs and comment sections, think my elevator does not go all the way to the top and that I’m paddling around the lake in circles in a rowboat with only one oar in the water. Be that as it may, Ross, please listen to me here and respond later. The very future of civilization is at stake.

    It’s this: Ross, WHAT IF, what if reading off screens — what Marvin Minksy at MIT calls “screen-reading” and what I call “screening” — is vastly inferior, in terms of brain chemistry and neuroscience, to reading text on paper surfaces? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper surfaces is real reading and reading off screens is faux-reading? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper surfaces — a book, a newspaper, a magazine — is vastly superior to “screening” off screens — computers, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, nooks, Crannies, you name it! — in terms of information processing, information retention, information analysis and, perhaps most importantly, Ross, critical thinking skills?

    This is my hunch, and WHAT IF, what if I am right? I might be wrong, too. Maybe reading on paper and screening off screens is the same. But what if my hunch, backed up by personal anecdotal experiences and the experiences of several top experts in the field, from Anne Mangen in Norway to Maryanne Wolf at Tufts and Gary Small at UCLA, what if my hunch is later proven to be true by concerted neuroscience research using (f)MRI and PET brain scan studies that just might indicate that different regions of the brain light up when we read on paper compared to when we “screen” off screens, and that these differences show that reading on paper is superior to screen-reading for the four items noted above: processing, retention, analysis and critical thinking?

    What then, Ross?

    All I am saying is: give paper a chance! Test out my hunch before it is too late. Ask Drs Mangen and Wolf and Small. WHAT IF, again, what if it turns out that all these screen platforms that allow us to “view” news through plastic or glass screens are inferior — again, in terms of neuroscience and brain chemisty — to newsprint?

    Because IF, if I am right, and future MRI and PET scan studies show that we have been barking up the wrong tree with this gadgethead fixation, then what? Cancel the digital revolution?

    No way. As Gary Small has said: “The technology train has already left the station and there is no coming back.”

    But WHAT IF, what if my hunch turns out to have some air in it? What then?

  7. Piet Bakker Says:

    @Oliver Indeed, I added “futurists” myself. It’s not Twain’s, however, it’s British – according to Wikipedia.

    @Martin My hunch is that reading habit of new generations will indeed be decisive. Which would also explain the rather slow decline so far (if internet is so much faster, better and cheaper why does anybody bothers to read newspapers anyway?)

  8. Gareth Ward Says:

    There are a number of factors to consider also with regard to the cost of printing presses and how these are accounted for which alter the economics of publishing. In the UK at least most of the major investments have been completed and the machines can be expected to last a further 20 years. Their replacements are likely to use digital printing to at least some extent, encouraging different types of printed newspaper to emerge, printed closer to the point of consumption and with highly localised content/advertising. Just as electronic technologies are not static, nor are those placing ink on paper. BTW paper’s impact on the environment is largely understood, that of electronic media scarcely so.

  9. danny blom Says:

    Now, Piet, there is one thing you have overlooked entirely, The very future of civilization is at
    stake.

    It’s this: , WHAT IF, what if reading off screens — what Marvin
    Minksy at MIT calls “screen-reading” and what I call “screening” — is
    vastly inferior, in terms of brain chemistry and neuroscience, to
    reading text on paper surfaces? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper
    surfaces is real reading and reading off screens is faux-reading? WHAT
    IF, what if reading on paper surfaces — a book, a newspaper, a
    magazine — is vastly superior to “screening” off screens –
    computers, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, nooks, Crannies, you name it!
    – in terms of information processing, information retention,
    information analysis and, perhaps most importantly, Ross, critical
    thinking skills?

  10. Maurice Vergeer Says:

    Although Piet states predicting future newspaper subscription is not rocket science, I do think he oversimplifies predicting the future. As some indicated, there are more factors to take into account. See some of the prior posts. To test the method of moving averages as Piet used is valid, can be tested by looking at historical data. Piet uses – I assume – yearly data points going back only six years (i.e. 2004). Maybe Piet has no prior data for the UK. This means he uses the data of six years to predict forty years into the future. Normally one would need more than 30 observations to make these type of predictions. Also, the more into the future one predicts, the more unreliable distant estimates become. Not only that, a bias in the estimate will increase the more into the future one predicts. So, I´d be carefull with excel and moving averages that far into the future.

    A solution to test the quality of using the moving averages method, predictions arising from that could be compared to actual historal (Dutch?) data. For instance, using moving averages on the years 1970-2010. Only if small discrepancies between predicted and historical data exist, the method can be used to predict the future.

    I’m sure a research paper could emerge from exploring this issue.

  11. Piet Bakker Says:

    @Maurice

    The data are not the problem. I have data for all European and many non-European markets since 1995.

    I tried that first, but as UK papers lost less, were stable or even gained circulation in other years, this resulted in an average loss of 1.3% (all papers) or 2.4% (paid papers) over the last fifteen years. But as these loses gradually increased, I argued using the last five years as indicator would fit better. The smaller losses, however, are also in the graph.

    But it’s still a crude prediction – but contrary to Dawson’s one, with solid and real data and with the method explained.

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  15. Eugenie Says:

    Great…

    Out of major sports like NFL, College Football, Soccer, Baseball, Hockey, etc. What is the most exciting sport and which sport do you find the most boring to watch?. , http://tqhln.blog-host.nl/_fresh_hand_made_anklets_added-189450.html…

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