Peak Paper

Last week three separate people asked me, synchronicitously and with varying degrees of panic in their voices, if I thought newspapers would some day stop publishing in print. One suggested a wager.

My non-answer was that I don’t care, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that newspapers* find a sustainable online business model. Thinking about that keeps me up at night; fear mongering about delivery methods puts me to sleep.

The question of an end to print presupposes a day when the last newspaper rolls off the last press. The long slow fade of newsprint is accelerating, but we’re unlikely to ever witness the Last Newspaper. Like poetry, newsprint will become increasingly irrelevant to most people, until it comes to rest in a permanent but minor niche.

A good analogy is peak oil, the point at which maximum oil production has been reached and begins to decline, precipitously in some models. After peak oil there’s still oil in the ground, but it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to get out. Cost and convenience force us to switch to other forms of energy, with predictable dislocations and disruptions. Just so with peak paper, the point of maximum print newspaper circulation.

It’s an open question when peak oil will occur (some think it already has), but peak paper almost certainly happened decades ago**. If I had to hazard a date, I’d say it was the day before the New York newspaper strike of 1962. Prior to the strike, New York had 9 major daily newspapers. The months-long strike sent circulations sharply down, killed at least one newspaper outright***, and gave television news an enormous boost.

I’m not immune to the nostalgia of ink on paper. And I don’t have any silver bullets for supporting post-print journalism, though I’m optimistic that solutions will be found. But speculating about the End of Print is a red herring, a cheap shock tactic to startle those unsettled by a period of difficult transition.

What matters is quality writing and reporting; flapping our arms over how it’s delivered is a distraction. Peak paper has come and gone. Newspapers need to accept that, and focus on what we need to do to make quality journalism possible in a post-print world.

* By which I mean news organizations. I also call a collection of mp3s released by the same person at the same time a “record.”

** I’m talking strictly about newspapers and newsprint. As my friend Arik notes, office paper doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The closest thing to statistics I could find for historic newspaper circulation was this report. If anyone can point to better stats in the comments, that would be appreciated.

*** The Daily Mirror; the Journal American and the Herald Tribune would be gone by 1966.