Few would dispute that one of the keys to the Seattle Times’ Darwinian triumph over the rival P-I was its success in altering the terms of their Joint Operating Agreement to allow the Blethens to shift publication from the afternoon to the morning. Afternoon papers had been declining for decades, and the Times was intent on avoiding what former Executive Editor Michael Fancher dubbed “death in the afternoon.”
Ironically, now that the dead-tree version of the P-I is dead, and the omnipresent Internet has compressed the news cycle to the point where it has disappeared entirely, I can’t help but wonder if a shift back to the afternoon slot might not be the Times’ best strategy for long-term print survival?
Conventional wisdom states that the rise of TV news conspired with changing demographics and commuting patterns to condemn most afternoon newspapers to a slow but inevitable death. While print and TV newsrooms both faced similar deadlines for their evening editions, the live format of the latter made their reports fresher in appearance if not in actually substance, and certainly took less effort to consume. The once-dominant afternoon papers still outnumbered their morning cousins as late as 1999, but they were gradually losing the battle against their 1950’s-era new media competition: TV. Nationally, paid daily afternoon newspaper circulation peaked in 1968 at about 37 million; by 2008 it was under 6 million. And falling.
The morning newspaper’s heyday was much more recent, with circulation peaking at 47 million as recently as 2003, but those numbers have declined nearly 9 percent over the past five years, and even that anemic performance is inflated by the continuing shift from afternoon to morning publication. Overall, daily newspaper circulation has declined 12 percent over past half decade to its lowest numbers since 1945. Afternoon paper circulation is now a little more than an afterthought, but the future of the morning paper looks just as dim.
The culprit today is of course the Internet, which makes the process of reporting, delivering and consuming news virtually instantaneous. For example, today at 5:43 AM PST, the AP buzzed a breaking news notification to my iPhone: “Weekly claims for jobless benefits plunge to 466,000, lowest level in more than a year.” That same “news” won’t be reported in the print edition of the Seattle Times until tomorrow morning, to be read by subscribers more than 24-hours after it broke. And the rest of tomorrow’s Times will be at least half a day old by the time subscribers extract it from its protective armor of rubber bands and plastic bags.
So really… why even bother?
It’s easy to imagine a not too distant future in which Seattle becomes a no-newspaper town, at least if you consider “paper” an integral part of the definition. That doesn’t mean the Times (or even the P-I) will necessarily cease to exist, just their print publication. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way?
With their modern typesetting and printing facilities, the Times could easily publish an afternoon edition filled with same-day news only a couple hours old… nearly, if not quite as up-to-date as their website. Newsprint may be an anachronistic medium for delivering news in the digital age, but it would be a little less so if the news it delivered wasn’t so damn old. Perhaps that’s not enough to compete with coming age of Kindles, Nooks, eReaders and iPads (or whatever Apple’s much anticipated tablet is called).
But perhaps it’s worth a try?