Another omen for newspapers

Google announced today that it is ending it’s Print Ads program which packaged and sold advertising space in over 800 U.S. newspapers. Apparently the program, which started in 2006, hasn’t lived up to expectations for generating revenue.

Google’s stated goal for the Print Ads program was to create a product that would bring a new source of revenue to newspapers. According to Spencer Spinnell, Director of Google Print Ads:

“We believe fair and accurate journalism and timely news are critical ingredients to a healthy democracy. We remain dedicated to working with publishers to develop new ways for them to earn money, distribute and aggregate content and attract new readers online. We have teams of people working with hundreds of publishers to find new and creative ways to earn money from engaging online content ... These important efforts won’t stop. We will continue to devote a team of people to look at how we can help newspaper companies.”

Newspaper advertising revenue has been trending down for some time and the decreases seem to accelerate with every quarter. For Q3 of 2008 (the most recent numbers available), total print advertising revenue for U.S. newspapers dropped 19.8% from the same quarter in the previous year. (Source: Newspaper Association of America) Given that trend, it’s easy to see why Google decided to end its Print Ads program.

A column by Michael Hirschorn in the current issue of The Atlantic paints a bleak picture of the future for newspapers, focusing in particular on the The New York Times’ current woes. Hirschorn makes a case that the end for print newspapers like The Times may be sooner than we think, with the Tribune Company in bankruptcy and the New York Times Company shoulder-deep in debt.

According to Hirschorn, however, all may not be lost for traditional American print journalism. His column goes on to describe a scenario where despite the death of The Times’ print edition, it’s online component would survive and continue to offer the sort of fair and accurate journalism that Google recognizes as vital to democracy. Google’s continued commitment (per Spencer Spinnell’s comments) to help newspapers earn money through online content appears to support a future where The Times and others succeed in moving traditional print journalism online.

What do you think? With or without Google’s help, online or in print, will newspapers be able to find or create the revenue streams they need to survive?

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