Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Word in the digital world

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IF you are reading this column in the printed version of the Free Press, enjoy it while you can -- in seven years, it will be gone.

So says the Newspaper Extinction Timeline, which has published its predictions for when the world's newspapers, in their current form, will no longer be viable.

According to the Timeline, news on paper will disappear in the U.S. in 2017, the United Kingdom in 2019, and Canada in 2020. Over the next 20 years, other countries will lose their printed-on-paper news until, by 2040, there will be no news printed on paper anywhere in the world.

Newspapers won't disappear, the Timeline hastens to add. But those that survive will do so because they found new ways to share the news.

Whether or not the Timeline is right about the dates, there's no doubt news printed on paper is in trouble, the result of declining advertising revenue, shrinking circulations, aging readership, and rising costs.

What's true for major dailies is true for small religious publications, too.

In mid-May, church publications from across Canada met in Toronto for the annual Canadian Church Press convention. The CCP, as it is known, has been an umbrella group for church publications for over 50 years; its members include Manitoba-based publications such as Canada Lutheran, Canadian Lutheran, Mennonite Brethren Herald, The Recorder, The Messenger, ChristianWeek and Geez Magazine.

As a member of the CCP, I was at the convention. Consider the challenges facing publications today, the mood wasn't somber, but it wasn't overly optimistic, either.

A survey of CCP member publications revealed the scope of the challenges.

Almost half have declining circulation, aging readers and rising costs. About 40 per cent rely on denominations for subsidies or grants, which means their health is tied to the health of those denominations, some of which are experiencing declining membership and giving.

The CCP itself is a barometer of the changing times; in the past five years its membership has declined 17 per cent, with nine publications ceasing operation in that same time frame.

"Like all publishers, those in the Christian industry feel pressure from the digital world," says CCP president Ian Adnams.

Most publications are coping by having print and online versions. At some point, they will have to move to being online only, but that's a huge challenge; the majority of paying readers are older and still like getting magazines printed on paper.

It would take a brave editor to sacrifice current readers by moving to an online-only model, Adnams says, particularly since there is "little, if any, revenue in this model, as opposed to the print publication which can sell advertising."

Christian publications aren't the only ones struggling. In May, The Canadian Jewish News announced its intention to end its print version after 42 years, a victim of the changing times.

"For some time, we have known of the ravages that printed newspapers and magazines have been experiencing across the world," wrote the newspaper's president, Donald Carr. "We hoped that The CJN, with its 'niche' attraction, would not be like others and that our print edition would survive and flourish.

"We made substantial operating changes, which we thought would assist. After careful analysis, we have concluded that they do not."

Readers are pleading with the News not to abandon print. The publication is offering some hope, but making no promises.

In the 16th century, the world was revolutionized by the printing press. Religious groups not only adapted to it, they adopted it, putting it to good use. Now they face another revolution in communications -- a digital one. Will they be able to adapt again?

Adnams is hopeful they will.

"Just as the church embraced the print revolution, so it must embrace the digital revolution," he says. "The digital revolution will eventually win the day and print publications could become the exception rather than the rule."

In seven years -- if the Newspaper Extinction Timeline is correct -- we'll know if he is right.

 

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 D15

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