Print is not Dead

By Aziza Jackson
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the research report]

There is still life in print news.  A new survey of almost 1,000 Alabama news consumers found about 43 percent of them preferred to get their local news from print editions of the Alabama newspapers they read most regularly. An equal percent preferred to receive their news from the Web sites of the newspapers.  Here is the shocker: The survey was administered online, but even this Web-friendly audience responded positively to the print editions.

This finding may surprise some, but not all.  An overwhelming majority of 21 Alabama community newspaper editors and publishers interviewed agreed that print news remains alive and well.  Some said the idea of print’s demise is myth—a non-applicable prediction that separates the future of larger metropolitan newspapers from smaller community newspapers of Alabama.  Others were sure print news is in a state of evolution—a product of a changing world that now consists of technology-driven consumers that rely on the most up-to-date information available to them.

“With the demise of print journalism when radio became popular, and the demise of print journalism when television became popular, and the demise of print journalism when Internet became popular, am I looking at a Frankenstein monster?” said Goodloe Sutton, Sr., editor and publisher of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Ala.

The new survey was conducted in spring 2010 by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism at the University of Alabama.  The research, a part of the Knight Fellows’ work toward master’s degrees, queried readers reached through newspapers’ Web sites and by distributing the questionnaire through Twitter and Facebook.  The respondents volunteered to take part.

The survey and interviews with Alabama community newspaper editors and publishers raise the question: How did the demise of print news become such widespread conventional wisdom?  One answer is that the experience of smaller community newspapers may be overshadowed in findings and discussion dominated by larger metropolitan newspapers.

According to an article in the October 2009 issue of AlaPressa , “NNA’s (National Newspaper Association) readership study confirms strength of small market community newspapers.”  Stories that lay print to rest tend to be based on advertising and readership numbers of major daily newspapers, the AlaPressa article said.  Sometimes the scope is narrowed to the top 100 papers, sometimes the top 250.

“In many ways, print media has suffered from the advancement of Internet technology over the past few years. But, for the most part, the advancement has affected daily newspapers in larger metropolitan areas much, much more than it has affected community weeklies,” said DeeAnn Campbell, editor of the Choctaw Sun-Advocate, a weekly publication in Gilbertown, Ala.

“I have talked at length about this to other editors of weekly papers in the more rural, less affluent areas of the state,” she said. “I believe that we are insulated from much of the effect of the Internet age because we offer community-based news that the public cannot find on 24-hour cable news networks or Internet-based national news organizations, and in many cases, our readers—many of whom are senior citizens and those who live in poverty—have not yet gravitated toward the use of computers and the Internet as they have in larger cities.”

The community newspaper is proving to be a different breed in the pool of print news.  And Alabama editors are finding their community paper’s strength in the community coverage they provide.  “If you don’t service your community well, then your paper will die, but if you prove to be the voice and serve your community well, they will always be around,” said Erica Slone, publisher of the Madison County Record, a weekly publication in Madison, Ala.

“Print remains especially strong in smaller communities, as the Internet doesn’t provide the hyper-local information that can be found in a community newspaper,” said Leada Gore, editor and publisher of the Hartselle Enquirer, a weekly publication in Hartselle, Ala.  “And, you can’t hang a website on the refrigerator! Smaller newspapers specialize in refrigerator journalism (honor rolls, school awards, weddings, engagements, etc.) and those are the type of things people still want in print.”

Niche publications like the Birmingham Business Journal, a weekly publication in Birmingham, Ala., continue to give readers information they may not be receiving from any other source. Birmingham Business Journal editor Craig Ey said, “The print niche publications will continue to do well for a while, but I think we’re all going to have to come to terms with the fact that all publications will be on an exclusively electronic platform at some point in the future — five years, 10 years — we don’t know. But we do know that the technology, with things like the Kindle, is becoming more reader-friendly.”

From the results of the Knight Fellows 2010 survey, clearly the printed community newspaper and the community newspaper website were the leaders in how users got their news.  Not only did respondents say they preferred to get news in these ways, they reported that’s what they actually did. The print newspaper was deemed most popular, with 33.6 percent of participants saying they received their news everyday in that format. The newspaper’s website came in second to the print version, with 26.2% of participants saying they got their news from their newspaper’s website everyday.

However, the website trumped the print version in frequency of use, with 25.2% of participants returning to the website multiple times a day.  The print version received a dismal 3.1 percent of participants who got their news from the print version multiple times a day.  Why such a low percentage of multiple-times-a-day consumers for the print product?  The likely answer:  Print, unlike the Web, can’t update and offer fresh breaking news throughout the day.

Table 1: Frequency of use and preference of delivery format for readers’ primary local paper

Delivery format % of readers who use tool daily or multiple times a day % of readers who prefer to get their local news in this format
Web 49.1% 43.6%
Print 34.2% 43.6%
Email 15.4% 3.1%
Mobile 10.6% 3.5%
RSS 15.5% 2.9%
Twitter 9% 2.0%
Facebook 13.5% 1.3%

Also notable was the comparatively few of those answering who went to alternative delivery formats for their news now, or would prefer to use those formats.  Similar sentiment emerged when participants were asked about their desire to download a mobile application to get their news, if apps were available from Alabama newspapers they read most regularly.

Participants were split into three categories based on response to the mobile application question: Adopters, Unsure, and Non-adopters.  About 163 participants (15.8 percent responded as “very likely” to adopt a mobile application and 167 participants (16.2percent) responded as “likely”to adopt a mobile application.  These two groups, once combined, made up the Adopters group.  The Unsure group was made up of the 120 participants (11.7 percent) who responded as “unsure.”  And finally, the Non-adopters group consisted of  191 participants (18.6 percent) who responded as “not likely” and the 388 participants (37.7 percent) who responded as “not at all likely” or “not applicable.” These two groups, once combined, made up the Non-adopters group.  Participants in the Non-adopters group outnumbered those in the Adopters and Unsure groups together. These results raise a caution to newspapers considering investing in mobile applications in the near future.   

Table 2: Desire for download of a mobile application

Number of participants Percent
Adopters 330 32%
Unsure 120 11.7%
Non-adopters 579 56.3%

Experiences with print and online as partners

News that is produced online is indeed easily accessible by users, but can just as easily be accessed by producers for breaking news reporting, updates, and corrections.

The Demopolis Times has found useful ways for its audience in Demopolis, Ala. to interact with its print product, online newspaper, and mobile methods of delivery.  “We have a mobile site, built specifically to be accessed via smart phone.  It’s much more reader friendly via cell than accessing our standard site,” said Jason Cannon, publisher of the Demopolis Times, a weekly publication. “We use Facebook, update it daily with news headlines and poll questions. . . .  We use twitter to ‘tweet’ breaking news, ball scores, or anything we need to get out instantly. We often report game scores inning-by-inning or quarter-by-quarter from the sidelines.  We have a daily news email. This email goes out every day with a minimum of three news headlines. Clicking the headline directs you back to our website.”

Most of the editors and publishers interviewed believed that print, though alive on its own, proved to be more powerful for their paper once combined with online and alternate methods of delivery.  “The benefits of digital are speed of delivery and the ability to tell a story in a more interactive, multimedia environment,” said Kenneth Boone, editor and publisher of the Alexander City Outlook, a daily newspaper in Alexander City, Ala.  “One benefit that’s not so obvious is that you can read a newspaper 100 years after it’s printed. Try finding a copy of an online community newspaper that was posted two years ago … how easy will it be in 2110?”

Most participants in the Knight Fellows’ survey said their local newspapers were credible, accurate, useful, and important.  And readers now have the opportunity to choose and decide for themselves how they are going to interact with their community newspaper, rather than being subjected to the news content only one medium is offering.

“I prefer the print version because I can consume without being at a computer,” said Dr. George Daniels, an associate professor of journalism in the department of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama, “And I don’t have to search for the articles after they’ve been out for a day.  For example today (Saturday, May 15), I just got a chance to go through both The Birmingham News and Tuscaloosa News from Thursday, Friday and today.  It would take twice as long to find the Thursday and Friday issues online.”

According to Daniels, who is a daily subscriber to both the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa newspapers, he prefers the accessibility of the tangible information on the print version.  However, he still finds the Web versions of his community newspapers useful because he can check regularly for archived articles.

Accessing archives from multiple sources at the same time proves to be just one of the many different ways users choose to interact with their community newspapers.  The different tools of engagement that websites provide to users help determine the type of interaction sites will have with their audiences.

In Web Journalism: practice and promise of a new medium, author James G. Stovall (2004) said “the most profound change the Web offers to journalism is its quality of interactivity and possibility of changing the relationship between the journalist and the audience.”   Stovall notes how the “choices” on the Web can be built into the actual articles and Web pages using hyperlinks.  Those allow readers to “veer off” within that particular story to find more information and exercise more control over what they see and read.

“Today (Sunday, May 16) was a great example of when the websites of the newspapers to which I subscribe to the print edition were critical for me as a reader,” said Daniels.  “We had a mass shooting overnight (late Saturday night) in a neighborhood not too far from where I live.  It was mentioned this morning in church.  When I got home, I wanted to learn more about what had happened.    Because of the time of the shooting, it was not a story that made the morning newspaper.”

The story was about a shooting at a graduation party in Tuscaloosa, Ala. that took place the night of May 14.  One teen was killed and eight others were wounded. According to Daniels, the Web proved to be the only way of getting breaking news coverage about the shooting, not only for Alabama print papers but also for local news stations such as WHNT-TV and WVUA-TVThe Tuscaloosa News had done an initial posting on the story, and so did Kent Faulk from The Birmingham News on their breaking news blog.

“Print is simply a process,” said Karen Pearce, editor of the Coosa County News in Rockford, Ala. “Delivery of the news is the real objective. I think our primary focus as journalists should remain on that objective and the fundamental principles of journalism. Right now, perhaps even more as a user of that content rather than a producer, I am concerned with the sheer volume of online news (and even more so news-ish) content. It can easily be overwhelming and confusing. The nature of the combined power—whether it is positive or negative—is in the hands of the user/reader.”

Discussion about print, the Web and the future

Information from the Knight Fellows’ survey helps our understanding of the print newspaper’s function in the lives of everyday people.  The new survey, unlike research that focuses on larger markets, directly pertains to local community newspapers in Alabama.  And by the survey’s measures, and the observations of Alabama editors and publishers, print news is most certainly alive and kicking.

That’s in line with a 2008 report done by the National Newspaper Association.  That national study found that 86 percent of adults read a print newspaper every week, with 75 percent of those readers reading most or all of their paper.

“This is in stark contrast to news reports trumpeting the decline, if not demise, of newspapers,” says John Stevenson, president of NNA and publisher of the Randolph Leader in Roanoke, Ala., on the organization’s website. “We learned three years ago that we had a different story to tell, and with this second update we again prove that our initial findings hold up.”

Not only did this 2008 survey yield a high percentage of newspaper readers, but the percentage had climbed from 2005 and 2007.

“Just about all of the research and news reports on the ‘struggling’ newspaper industry have been based on what’s happening at the top 100 major metropolitan newspapers, maybe the top 250,” said Brian Steffens, NNA executive director, on the organization’s website. “That doesn’t tell the story of the remaining 1,200 daily newspapers or 8,000 community weekly papers in America. Many of those troubled papers started as community papers and then enjoyed decades of growth as they expanded into adjacent communities and surrounding suburbs, becoming regional newspapers and losing that tight community focus. That worked for a while, but that model may not be as successful going forward. But it doesn’t seem right to paint the rest of our industry with that brush.”

The local newspaper still beats as the heart of community information.  In the Knight Fellows’ survey, 54.5 percent of respondents said the local newspaper was the primary way they got news about their community.  That was ahead of radio news, television news, government websites, community members, and social networking sites as sources.

Still, it’s clear in the Fellows’ survey that print’s inability to consistently provide breaking news has readers turning to websites. It’s a reality that most Alabama editors and publishers acknowledge.  And while they are far from lowering print’s casket, many Alabama editors are embracing the idea of reaching their audiences in more ways than one.


This article relies on original research conducted by the 2010 Knight Fellows in Community Journalism at the University of Alabama.  Other sources include:

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Kenneth Boone, editor and publisher of the Alexander City Outlook in Alexander City, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with DeeAnn Campbell, editor of the Choctaw Sun-Advocate in Gilbertown, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Jason Cannon, publisher of the Demopolis Times in Demopolis, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Craig Ey, editor of the Birmingham Business Journal in Birmingham, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Leada Gore, editor and publisher of the Hartselle Enquirer in Hartselle, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Karen Pearce, editor of the Coosa County News in Rockford, AL.  June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Erica Slone, publisher of the Madison County Record in Madison, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Goodloe Sutton, Sr., editor and publisher of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden, AL. June 2010.

Jackson, A. (2010) Interview with Dr. George Daniels, associate professor of journalism in the department of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. May 2010.

“NNA’s readership study confirms strength of small market community newspapers,” AlaPressa (Oct. 2009), p.8

Stovall, James G.  Web Journalism: practice and promise of a new medium. Boston: Pearson A and B (2004).

“86 percent of adults (18 years and older) read America’s community newspapers weekly,” National Newspaper Association, (Nov. 2008), Retrieved May 15, 2010.

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