Print is dead and this time you would agree!

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The demise of paper (yes, the stuff made from trees) has been a longstanding prediction. Ever since the first time we realized that we could conveniently find, consume, save, produce, or modify information via CPU, the old school printing press was put on notice. Still, old school newspapers, magazines, and books have held on, defying expectations and proving more resilient than many expected, making fools out of those who assured us otherwise. That is, until two weeks ago.

The newspaper industry, hit hard by declining readership, increased printing and distribution costs, and disappearing ad revenue, has been long poised for a radical overhaul. It seems fitting that Detroit – a place that knows more than a little about decline and the challenges and roadblocks to reformation – has set out to lead the charge toward transformation toward a new model in newspaper delivery.

According to a press release from the Detroit Media Partnership (the publishers of both the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News), “The economics of the newspaper business demand change to survive… The dynamics of delivering information to audiences has changed forever due to technology… That means we have to change the way we deliver [the] news – not just in subtle ways, but in fundamental ways.” Read: We’re going digital.

Under the new plan, News and Freep will drastically slash print operations in order to re-focus the papers’ mission to online delivery of news, opinion, and information. It may not be entirely surprising, but it is somewhat radical. Never before has a major city daily (combined daily circulation ranks them as 9th largest in the U.S., 6th largest on Sundays) – actually cut home delivery. Has a fundamental cultural rite – jockeying for favorite newspaper sections the breakfast table – come to an end?

Soon, Freep and News subscribers will see papers on their doorsteps or driveways just three days a week. And while print editions will continue to be delivered to boxes and commercial outlets (i.e. 7-11) seven-days-a-week, readers will find those papers scaled down both in size and scope.

So what does this portend for the future of how we consume our news? Consumers have long been abandoning local paper delivery to get their daily dose of opinion, weather, and sports online. Are we really going to follow the dailies there when the personal connection, the tangibility to the newsprint is severed? Why, when our choices are so much more diverse and accessible?

This is what more than a few critics are asserting in response to the papers’ plan – that, in fact, by halting home delivery and cutting printed product, the Freep and News will simply be accelerating the inevitable.

But the Detroit Media Partnership – convinced in part by design consultancy IDEO – challenges those who make such assumptions. After all, Detroit Free Press customers have already been migrating to their online offerings organically. And on the way, they’ve managed to attract new eyeballs as well: Traffic to freep.com is up to about 1.5 million page views a day (and as high as 4 million), and in 2008 was noted as one of the fastest growing websites in the country.

But readership alone may not be enough. Reports indicate that despite the change in consumer consumption habits, print still brings in the bulk of overall revenue – about 85-90 percent. Can the Detroit Media Partnership really succeed under that equation without drastically cutting the quality or quantity of its newsgathering (which is why consumers go to these sites in the first place)? What plan is in place to more effectively monetize online readership and content? A lot of eyes in the publishing world will be on Detroit, trying to get a handle on the long-term impact of this change.

As for current subscribers whose eyes are already going elsewhere online, will they really make the transition as the Detroit papers intend? And are the papers really versed in how consumers browse, read, and act online? A quick review of the press release and my options as a subscriber after the announcement revealed issues from non-existent user pathing (the online announcement names – but doesn’t link to – reader reaction websites), to needless barriers to engagement (users have to log in to leave a comment on the changes and are asked to provide demographic information before accessing subscription information), to an inability to close the deal (no means to change/update a subscription to the new delivery options). It seems detnews.com and freep.com have quite a few lessons to learn before committing full-out to digital.

If ultimately they fail? Could newsprint see a revival? When Noah Ovshinsky of Detroit Public Radio put this question to Detroit Media Partnership CEO and Detroit Free Press publisher Dave Hunke, the future of print couldn’t be clearer: “We’re never going back.”

It seems that, like it or not, the breakfast table is going to get a lot less crowded.

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