A good day to die hard according to Brazilian print media

“Newspaper Reader” by zeevveez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Twenty four hours ago, on May 31st, 2017, a Brazilian top-20 player in this game called print media leaning more towards the 20th rank, to be honest — ceased its ink&paper edition for good. The best selling newspaper in a 12 million people Brazilian state, Gazeta do Povo took that digital-only shortcut to justify to its readers a not so noble farewell. To give you some perspective, it’s as if the Star Tribune, in the US, or the Leicester Mercury, in England, shut their “physical doors” to embrace some exclusive digital (after)life, which is not a big deal, but, let’s face it, it’s some kind of deal.

Brazil sustains its (in)glorious 5th place as one of the most populous countries in the world and, despite the suffocating political crisis it's facing right now, it still has the eighth largest economy by nominal GDP. However, none of these two crucial numbers (people and money) seem to be helpful regarding print media. The most recent data shows the three most important Brazilian newspapers lost somewhere between 22k to 29k daily copies, when comparing December 2015 with December 2016. Folha de S. Paulo, from São Paulo, saw 17% of its audience disappear in just one year — same thing with O Globo, from Rio (14,8%), and O Estado de S. Paulo (14,9%). They hate it, but someone should come clean about it: the Brazilian power trio lost, on average, almost 16% of its readers in 50 weeks.

But if these three cornerstones of South American journalism still have a lot money/readers/paper to burn, what about the second half of that top-20 chart? Do they actually know when it’s time to pull the plug? Is there a magic number which gives the hint to some media company shouldn’t bother printing issues anymore simply because no one really cares? To Gazeta do Povo, apparently, yes, there is one: 25.380. Although it sounds oddly specific, that’s the last known number of daily copies registered (February 2017), according to the Brazilian print media circulation regulator.

Back in December 2015, for example, Gazeta do Povo was doing much better, with 34.519 daily copies. If you lose one third-ish of your business in 14 months, it seems reasonable that you rethink your entire existence, or, at least, your entire platform — I know I would.

It’s worth pointing out that Brazilian print media has other not-so-reasonable examples with much less than 25k daily copies which don’t even consider setting up their Give Up Edition yet, so why did Gazeta do Povo choose this particular place in time?

First of all, I must say I have grown fond of that so-called research from 2010 (I guess) released with the evocative name of Newspaper Extinction Timeline. It was sponsored by an intiative called Future Exploration Network and although there was no evidence whatsoever that what they were trying to sell was true, a lot of sites and blogs published those random numbers like it was legitimate data. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, seven years ago, Newspaper Extinction Timeline predicted the alleged year in which newspapers would cease to exist in each country, beginning with the United States (2017), the United Kingdom (2019), Canada (2020) and so on. According to Future Exploration, Brazil and Italy newspapers would survive until 2027.

Obviously, Future Exploration Network, the guys behind the ‘study’, wanted to provide consulting to all these doomed souls (if I’m not mistaken, they called themselves “the media industry think-tank”, and some journalists dumbly replicated it later, no questions asked). The irony is, Future Exploration official site most recent update seems to date back to 2015, which would mean they lasted less than the newspapers they were trying to “help”.

“Newspapers yellow” by Jon S is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Although the whole buzz was a marketing clickbait, there is some kind of (distorted) truth about that extinction timeline. Future Exploration chairman Ross Dawson has always chosen to refer to his "survey" as the time when “newspapers in their current form will become insignificant”, which was an understandable defense mechanism. The thing is, this safety valve proved to be wrong as well: newspapers in Australia don’t need to wait until 2022 to “become insignificant”, the same is true about New Zealand’s final date (2024), Brazil’s (2027) or Mexico’s (2033). “In their current form”, as he says, they already are.

Publishers around the world do not discuss it with all due seriousness because most of them hate to face the inevitable: they will never sell as many print issues as they did ten, five, or two years ago

But the major mistake about this whole map of destruction lies in its own basic premise: it predicted the Armageddon by country. I don’t know about 2010 (Dawson seemed pretty excited about Kindles and iPads back then), but in 2017 it’s safe to say American print media hasn’t disappeared and when it does that’s not the way it’s gonna happen, not one country after another. But size after size (we all have been told a thousand times: size matters. Believe the hype).

That’s why Brazilian Gazeta do Povo and its 25.380 daily copies will no longer be a (paper) thing: size. And if I was the chairman of some Misery Exploration Network I would aim this same target (sorry, Star Tribune and Leicester Mercury, it’s not personal). Publishers and journalists around the world do not discuss it with all due seriousness because most of them (99% kind of “most”) hate to face the inevitable: they will never — ever — sell as many print issues as they did ten, five, or even two years ago.

Now would be a great moment to pull out an example — preferably a slashing one. Ok, São Paulo is the most populous Brazilian state with 44 million people, approximately. Folha de S. Paulo reigns as São Paulo’s best selling paper with 142.823 daily copies on average (33k less than one year ago). Write this down: one issue for each 308 people. In 1995, at its peak, Folha sold, during a sunny Sunday morning, 1.5 million copies. São Paulo’s population those days: 33 million. The 1995 proportion: one issue for each 22 people.

This 90’s nostalgia can also be measured by jobs. According to US Labor Department, the American newspaper sector lost almost 300,000 jobs (60% of the total) in the period from 1990 to 2016 — that’s the entire population of a city like Orlando (including Goofy and Chip n’ Dale).

As far as money is concerned, things don’t get any better. Over the past five years, newspaper advertising revenues have declined in the US and in the UK, even without any plausible economic recession. According to Joshua Benton, former Dallas Morning News and director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the New York Times faced 19% down on print advertising last year which means the following (and, please, don’t shoot the messenger): if advertisers are not spending their money on NYT pages, they probably won't be spending on yours.

On March 2007, a group of media fellows founded the Newspaper Death Watch, a space dedicated to spread the news about media layoffs and petitions for bankruptcy. It was fun while it lasted: however, Newspaper Death Watch couldn't predict its own death, which occurred last year (even print media death is yesterday news now).

Gazeta do Povo’s not so new direction would give some hope to the hopeless ten years ago, by the time Newspaper Death Watch started to count bodies, or seven years ago, when Future Exploration Network was selling optimism (with low-interest financing). Today, as cheesy as it may sound, this move only mirrors the old case of live-forever-or-die-trying. And by the laws of nature, Gazeta do Povo is doing the second.

Full disclosure: I worked in print media for 20 years.
Full disclosure (pt. 2): I could have published this article 24 hours ago, but it wouldn’t be a proper tribute.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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