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Newspapers' Fate: From Caterpillars to Butterflies?

One hazard associated with blogging on a daily basis is the temptation to exaggerate outcomes based on short-term trends; you might call it a tendency toward hyperbole. While not admitting I've ever fallen victim to this particular temptation, it would be fair to say that I've frequently predicted that the era of the large, thick daily metropolitan newspaper has come to its end.

And it has.

But that doesn't mean that the newspapers still being published will actually perish. Some will, some won't. Most will end up smaller, thinner, and much more focused on local news than in the past -- and as such they could return to profitability.

Gordon Borrell of Borrell Associates* predicts that newspaper ad revenue will rebound 2.4 percent in 2010, and then enter a period of sustained growth of "continued single-digit increases over the next several years." He expects the figures for 2014 to be 8.7 percent higher than for 2009; although at $30 billion, that will still be just over half what they were at their peak a few years back.

He also says the bulk of this growth in ad revenue will be local print advertisers, as opposed to from national accounts. Here is how Borrell describes the transformation of newspapers:

"This once-fat, gray caterpillar that we knew as the 'major daily newspaper' is turning into a smaller, more delicate, colorful local magazine, with fair prospects for growth. The smaller newspapers are firmly entrenched in their niche of providing rich local content that people seem to prefer in print â€" rather than screen â€" format."

In my hometown, as if to illustrate Borrell's point, the San Francisco Chronicle recently relaunched itself as a colorful tabloid with bold graphics, although it has yet to indicate much interest in embracing the hyper-local model. No word yet on whether the Hearst Corp. will be pulling the plug or hanging in there until the new little paper digs itself out of the bucket of red ink that is called its annual balance sheet.

Oh, the Chron raised its newsstand price, too. It now costs a buck (plus ten cents tax) to buy it at the local store.

(*) Borrell Associates is a "research and consulting firm that tracks local advertising and helps media companies develop executive strategies."

Thanks to Thierry Lamouline for pointing me to Borrell's post.

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