Online ads overtake newspapers in the US – is it time for newspapers to stop publishing every day?

How could you have a newspaper that only came out on Saturday and Sunday, or Monday, Wednesday and Saturday? No-one would buy it surely?

Well fewer people in the US and UK are buying six-day papers (seven-day in rare cases) and advertisers certainly seem to have noticed and acted accordingly.

Online ad revenues overtook newspapers for the first time in the US last year, according to the State of the News Media report from the Pew Research Center, at $25.8bn against $22.8bn.

More alarmingly for US newspapers they were the only main media sector to continue to decline in a year that saw other media, most notably television, bounce back strongly from recession.

So it does rather make you wonder if they’re worth printing at all, or printing every day.

Of course much of this ad revenue is migrating from newspaper ads to newspaper websites, although not (as yet anyway) to such profitable effect.

According to Pew this trend (and the decline in newspaper circulations is a runaway train already on both sides of the Atlantic) will only accelerate as more and more people get their news from tablet computers and mobiles.

At the posh end of the spectrum newspapers now major on comment and analysis, at the other end on sensation and scandal. To an extent they still do a wonderful job, the coverage in many papers of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was exhaustive, compelling and, strangely perhaps, more moving than the television pictures.

But, day in day out, they are left behind by online, mobile and broadcast media.

There are many trade publications that never make money from their print versions, they make money from the website and hosting events, awards and conferences that prosper through the brand value of the sponsoring publication and its ability to promote them relentlessly to an audience the publisher knows a lot about.

So the print title is, in effect, a marketing device for other, more profitable activities.

Newspaper owners are very keen to build up their ancillary activities but the paper is the main thing and it nearly always loses more money (certainly costs more money) than the off-the-page offers or whatever they are bring in.

But should it be the main thing? Or a marketing device for other products and services?

In the relatively upmarket (and highly wired) people’s republic of Crouch End in North London what used to be newsagents offer only tiny piles of newspapers through the week but you can hardly get in the door for them on Saturday or Sunday.

Crouch End may not be entirely typical (a good half of the papers on offer seem to be the Guardian) but it’s been true for over a decade that Saturday papers sell strongly and carry lots of advertising, as most Sunday papers still do.

Would people stop buying a Guardian on Saturday because it wasn’t available in the week, when they don’t buy it anyway?

In the week they’re happy to pick up a free Metro newspaper in the morning and a free London Evening Standard in the afternoon (both excellent products which make money through a lower cost to advertising base) if they commute into Central London.

On Saturdays they’re happy to shell out £1.90 for the Guardian for a good, varied read. And look at the website (and maybe buy Guardian books or other products) in the week.

Newspapers remain a production-led business in the era of customer-led businesses. By the time newspaper owners wake up to this it will be too late for many of them.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.