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Hard News

Daily Papers Face Unprecedented Competition . . .

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page F01

The venerable newspaper is in trouble. Under sustained assault from cable television, the Internet, all-news radio and lifestyles so cram-packed they leave little time for the daily paper, the industry is struggling to remake itself.

Papers are conducting exhaustive surveys to find out what readers want. They are launching new sections, beefing up Web sites and spinning off free community papers and commuter giveaways in hopes of widening their audience. They even are trying to change the very language of the industry, asking advertisers and investors to dwell less on "circulation" -- how many papers are sold -- and more on "readership," or the number of people exposed to a paper's journalism wherever it appears, in print, on the Web or over the air.

(File Photo)

Getting the News: Then and Now

The changes come as circulation totals have eroded steadily for nearly two decades and as newspapers no longer play the central role in daily life they once did. Newspaper executives argue that an emphasis on readership better reflects what newspaper companies are becoming -- multidimensional media conglomerates with growing Internet sites and stakes in television, radio, magazines and other businesses.

"Natural societal things are going on," said Steve Lerch, a newspaper advertising buyer for Campbell Mithun of Minneapolis. "You can't take a half-hour to read the newspaper and eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. People aren't eating cereal anymore, either. I know -- I have General Mills as a client. People are eating yogurt bars on the way in to work."

Frank A. Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, said his industry has some breathing room left. But not much.

"The baby boomers are going to continue to drive print [sales] for some time," he said. "The problem we have are the . . . 18- to 35-year-olds. They're not replacing the baby boomers."

Others are more blunt, if hyperbolic.

"Print is dead," Sports Illustrated President John Squires told a room full of newspaper and magazine circulation executives at a conference in Toronto in November. His advice? "Get over it," meaning publishers should stop trying to save their ink-on-paper product and focus on electronic delivery of their journalism.

Rare is the paper these days that is not embracing the Web. In addition to their own sites, papers such as the New York Times, the Miami Herald and the Houston Chronicle e-mail free headlines and news summaries to people who don't have time for the newspaper but carry BlackBerrys and other electronic gizmos.

In December, The Washington Post Co. bought online magazine Slate from Microsoft Corp. to increase the paper's Internet footprint.

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