There's no doubt about it: Thanks to unassailable digital/Web competition, the print media industry continues to be on a steady decline that might have the once-relevant Fourth Estate relegated to the same ephemeral realm of bookstores, video stores, and now-all-but-forgotten record stores.
A damning report by the International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Circulations (IFABC) showed that in 2011, there was a global decline of newspaper sales in the nearly two percent range (approximately two million fewer papers sold per month than those in 2010).
All of the 23 IFAC member countries saw such a decline, less the four countries of Malaysia (with a paltry increase of slightly more than 3000 sales a month), Brazil, Belgium, and perhaps as a surprise to some, the U.S.
In fact, according to an analysis of a recent study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, four American papers have defied the worldwide industry slump.
"One paper, contrary to a downward industry trend, has enjoyed an increase in overall revenue in both 2011 and 2012," said Pew.
"Another has seen digital revenues average nearly 50% annual growth since 2010. A third has developed a fast-growing revenue stream outside of the core business while the fourth has seen the growth of digital revenue largely offset print losses."
Pointing to innovations ranging from sales force restructuring to rebranding and web consulting for local merchants, the Pew named the four insuperable papers on Monday:
- Florida's Naples Daily News
- California's Santa Rosa Press Democrat
- Utah's (Salt Lake City) The Deserest News
- Tennessee's The Columbia Daily Herald
Granted, each of the papers has a weekday circulation of less than 100,000 readers, with the Herald barely reaching the 15,000 mark.
Perhaps it's the smaller, provincial facet of the papers that has some Net skeptics wondering if these four papers are less a testament to the indefatigability of print media than an evanescent flit of singularly small town bravado.
PandoDaily's founder and editor-in-chief Sarah Lucy found the Pew Report to be less hopeful about the resilience of print media and "more depressing than anything."
Lucy went on to astutely note that along with the fact that the lessons glommed from the four papers' valiant struggle to survive are "all pretty case specific," the reality that the flailing print industry is agog by the finding of a mere four papers seeing revenue increases is statement enough of a business in extremis.
"In one case, the small paper aggressively experimented with different digital products," started Lucy in her (unfortunately) apt deconstruction of the Pew Report's revelations.
"[The paper] has succeeded in generating digital revenue that exceeds competitors, for the same reasons startups and small businesses often succeed: They have little to lose and are more nimble.
"Other publications in markets with older populations have doubled down on print - something they could do because they knew their unique demographics well. (But we'll see how those successes last.)
"The fourth example, The Deseret News in Utah, is an even more specific case. It has been dramatically overhauled by former Harvard Business School professor Clark Gilbert, who has in part succeeded by tapping into the Mormon Diaspora. Not an advantage most dailies have."
Paid Content's Matthew Ingram put it similarly in his analysis that "not all of [Pew Report's] lessons are going to be applicable to every situation - and some of the strategies that these newspapers have chosen to pursue may ultimately prove to be unwise."
In the end, no matter what the paper or what the city, circulation, or even country, it's clear that unless worldwide publications find alternative streams of revenue (including going to the Web), getting one's hands on a print paper might soon become as unlikely as finding a Laserdisc of Ron Howard's "The Paper" at a store in Times Square.