Why US Newspapers Are In Worse Trouble Than The European Press

The latest US newspaper to find its own trouble making the headlines is The Boston Globe. It joins a growing list of titles faced with an uncertain future, with both print sales and ad revenues declining. Web revenues will not compensate for these shortfalls (who said they should?) so current models are unsustainable.

Old hands complain that it's all the web's fault. Of course the internet has been hugely disruptive to models based on controlling scarcity, but it's also created whole new audiences for content, with news still the most popular category among users. Editors who argue that feckless online readers don't value their content enough should perhaps look closer to home for the reasons for their current woes before they reach for a paywall.

And before yet another US-based blogger writes the obituary for newspapers, can I point out that the current problems are not universal. The US newspaper industry may be approaching some kind of armageddon, but that is not quite the case in Europe, yet. Sure, European newspapers are in trouble, some will fold, and no one I've spoken to is either complacent or confident they have the right strategy, but the situation in different. Let me posit some reasons why European newspapers will not necessarily follow the same pattern as US
titles:

  • National titles (the norm in most EU
    countries) are less reliant than regional/local titles historically on
    classified ads, which have been the quickest to migrate
    online.
  • Staffing levels in the US are generally higher than in EU. I
    understand the New York Times has 1200 editorial staff. The Telegraph in the UK,  with comparable sales and web traffic, has
    550. (Happy to be corrected on these estimates, by the way)
  • The strength of the guilds in the US makes restructuring much more
    complex than in most of the EU, where employers, perhaps surprisingly, have had
    more room to manoeuvre.
  • National titles that have to compete
    on a newsstand (the model in much of the EU) have adapted better to a fiercely
    competitive market than regional titles used to a monopoly of news provision
    based around subscription models.
  • US journalism
    takes itself a little too seriously and is therefore less able to engage (or
    re-engage) a mainstream audience tempted elsewhere.

In other words (if you
buy my arguments) the characteristic weaknesses of US print journalism – a
superiority complex, overstaffing, being in thrall to the unions, and an institutional
inability to compete based on years of being a monopoly provider – are the sorts
of qualities more associated traditionally with certain European
markets. Ironically it seems the European titles are better placed to
fight for their future.