Newspapers need to get social or die

globeMy heart goes out to my former colleagues at the Globe and Mail today. The newspaper announced that it needs to cut its workforce by about 10 per cent, cutting 80 to 90 jobs from its 800-person staff. Roughly half will come from the editorial department.

The immediate impact on employees may not be quite as drastic as it sounds. The unionized Globe must offer buyout packages before it lays anyone off and there will be a plenty of journalists who will jump at the chance to retire early with incentive.

But the layoffs underscore the precarious state of the newspaper industry. The Globe says advertising revenue will drop by $40-million this year. The immediate challenge is the state of the economy. But the more important questions are A) whether this revenue will come back when the economy rebounds and B) whether millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995) will ever even want to read a newspaper.

Until recently, I believed that newspapers (the dead-tree variety) would live on for a long time. I’m no longer so sure. We’ll always need journalists, but we may not always want newspapers. An article in the latest issue of The Atlantic argues that newsprint could become extinct much more quickly than expected, asking: “what if The New York Times goes out of business — like, this May?” The article quotes a December report from Fitch Ratings Service, which monitors the health of media companies:

“Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”

The newspaper industry today is about where the music industry was 10 years ago. And we know how that worked out. Here’s the problem: Newspapers think they’ve adapted because they’ve put their content online and introduced some basic social media tools. But putting the same old content on a new medium isn’t enough. Plenty more needs to be done. 2009 is the year newspapers need to get social or die.