The "News Guru" Speaks: 2019 Publishers Survey Offers Insights to Industry Future
I was excited about the opportunity to speak to the publishers of New York recently at the NYPA Spring Convention. Let's face it, New Yorkers take their newspapers seriously, and the NYPA convention is always special.

I spoke on eight topics over two days while in New York, but it was the second session that drew the biggest crowd. The room was packed to hear me speak on the topic, "What's Really Happening at Newspapers Today."

Fortunately, I was a week into crunching numbers from my 2019 survey of U.S. newspaper publishers. I quizzed the audience before sharing the results of the survey to see how they thought other publishers would respond to the survey's 35 questions. On some, they were close. On others, they were audibly surprised.

We began conducting this annual survey in 2014, while I was directing the Newspaper Institute at The University of Tennessee. In each year since, we've had between 400 and 700 publishers participate. That's easily enough to indicate results representative of the industry.

While with the New York group, I took some time to look at the differences between daily and non-daily papers. We examined the numbers of locally-owned newspapers to those owned by large groups. We even compared newspapers in New York state to papers in other geographical areas of the country.

In coming columns, I'll share some of the most interesting details from these comparisons. In this column, I will share some general results of the completed questionnaires.

Where are the participants located?

No surprise here. Most respondents came from the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast geographical areas of the U.S. It makes sense, since these are the areas with the most newspapers. These were followed by the Southwest, West Coast, and Pacific Northwest.

I always get a chuckle out of this question. There will always be a few publishers from Texas who select "other," and insist Texas is its own geographical region.

How many copies are printed?

This one always seems to stump the audience. Most folks usually seem to think other papers are much larger than their own, so they will guess somewhere around 10,000. Then when I ask how big their papers are, they will usually come in around 3,000 to 5,000. Audience members always seem surprised to learn that most of their papers are like most other newspapers in the business.

How is the health of your newspaper?

When it comes to guessing the overall health of most newspapers, audience members usually guess correctly. Almost 45 percent of publishers in the survey responded their overall health as "Not bad, but not great." That was followed by 36 percent who responded the health of their papers was "Relatively healthy."

Only 10 percent of newspaper publishers indicated their papers are in "Poor health," while less than one percent checked "Near death."

Compared to one year ago, 52 percent of publishers indicate their papers are "About the same" health. 23 percent of papers seem to be in better shape than a year earlier, while 25 percent indicated they are in worse shape.

When compared to three years ago, the numbers aren't quite as rosy. "Better than three years ago" was selected by 24 percent of respondents. "About the same" was the answer for 25 percent, and 49 percent indicated they are in worse shape than three years ago.

Where is the money coming from?

Most folks in the New York audience guessed correctly to the question, "What is the primary revenue source of your main publication?" They were, however, surprised by the low number of papers than answered something besides "Print Advertising."

A full 95 percent of respondents answered "Print Advertising" when asked what was their primary revenue source. Another three percent indicated "Print Subscriptions," while 3 percent answered either "Digital Advertising" (1.6 percent) or "Digital Subscriptions" (.3 percent).

It seems that digital is a long way from "the goose that laid the golden egg." While many survey participants indicated they see some benefits from their digital presence, many are hard-pressed to find any financial benefits.

What's the bottom line?

Well, I'm still crunching numbers but it's safe to say this year's survey looks a lot like the surveys from 2014-2018. There are fewer newspapers without a digital presence. Newspapers aren't quite as optimistic about their long-term futures, but most think they will be around for a long time to come (12 years or longer) in printed form, though publishers aren't as confident as they were in previous years.

What surprised attendees the most in New York? From their responses to the survey results, I'd guess they were surprised that their newspapers were so similar to other papers around the U.S.

Like in most geographical areas, the large majority of New York papers are locally-owned. New York has its share of big metro papers, but most newspapers are weekly/community publications. They're not making the profits they were 30 years ago, but they are healthy and expect to continue in business for a long time to come.

When I began to call my session to an end, one of the audience members asked if I could share a little more information. I was surprised when other audience members indicated they'd like to learn more.

I continued to share some of what I'd learned visiting thousands of newspapers over the years and answering questions, while others shared their thoughts.

The truth is that I like just about every place I visit, and my few days in New York left me once again with the realization that our industry is in good shape. With spring convention season behind me, I suppose I'll have to visit a few papers to keep my adrenaline flowing.


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