Let's think the unthinkable: What American city will be the first to lose its daily newspaper?
Gone. Kaput. Out of business. Not even recycled.
It's not that unthinkable. In fact, some people in the newspaper and internet businesses have been quietly talking about it for years. There's no formal Newspaper Dead Pool that I know of, but everybody has their best guesses about which paper's print edition goes over the cliff first. And it will probably happen within a few years—if not sooner.
What would it take to kill a city's last remaining daily? A combination of several factors—and there are multiple variables within each.
Ownership: It could happen with a big, penny-pinching chain owner who just decides that publishing the Daily Bugle no longer makes economic sense. (The big chains have be constantly running these numbers.) Maybe the big chain tries to find a local buyer, but can't sucker anybody foolish enough to take on a sick paper. Or maybe there is local ownership, somebody who bought the Daily Bugle out of civic pride but didn't anticipate mounting losses because of rising costs, withering competition from upstarts like craigslist and continued declines in circulation and advertising. Eventually, somebody has to decide to pull the plug. (It could also be a very smart owner who sees the inevitable and chooses to retain the local franchise with a preemptive strike: replacing the big daily with a bunch of smaller, more focused, more relevant print and internet publications.)
Demographics: There are a couple of scenarios here, too. One argument is that markets with older populations are more vulnerable, as subscribers die off. Another is that a market that skews young already has lost interest in newspapers. High broadband internet penetration is another indicator: that's a market whose audience is largely moving to the Web for news and information, cancelling newspaper subscriptions along the way. All of these already are buffeting the Daily Bugle, and some combination of them will contribute to the Perfect Storm that kills it.
Business conditions: Obviously, a national or regional recession would hasten the Daily Bugle's demise. But so would a local retail market dominated by Wal-Marts and other big-box stores that rarely, if ever, advertise in the newspaper. Big newspapers are losing big advertisers in mass quantities already, and few have figured out a way to replace that revenue with lots of small advertisers. A market with a particularly heavy concentration of national retailers will be particularly vulnerable. Oh, and don't underestimate the effect that bankruptcy of one of the big U.S. automakers could have. That's coming, as well.
Failure to innovate: There are ways to stave off a newspaper's death spiral. Some papers may switch to tabloid formats, go to free distribution, stop publishing seven days a week, outsource their printing and distribution, and move more and more resources to the Web. All of these will postpone the day the Daily Bugle has to stop publishing, even if the product seems diminished from the grand broadsheets we're used to. But failure to take some or all of these steps, aggressively, will hasten a paper's demise.
Will it happen? Will we see a city without a print daily newspaper within a few years? Absolutely. Do I want to guess where? When I'm talking about this with other doomsayers, I vary between guessing a high-tech city like San Jose or San Francisco, or picking somewhere random (but economically fragile and chain-owned) like Kansas City or Cincinnati. Just a guess.
And what will happen after the unthinkable occurs? News and information abhor a vacuum. The gap will quickly be filled by local suburban papers, hyperlocal online sites, alternative papers, local blogs, a rightly scaled urban startup paper, online directory sites, craigslist and yes, even TV news. Not to mention the Daily Bugle's own Web site, which may survive in some form. In fact, all of those exist right now and are already eating away at the Daily Bugle's traditional hegemony. That's one of the factors that argues for this doomsday scenario: newspapers are facing competition from all directions, and readers are happily switching to these alternatives.
Because of that, in fact, the transition might be fairly seamless, after the initial shock. A year or so after the Daily Bugle plays taps, it's possible that not many of its former readers and advertisers will even miss it.