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On Reuters, Jack Shafer ponders the question of who was the first company to abandon ship when the newspaper industry first began to founder. As far back as 1991, Warren Buffett had warned that newspapers were no longer the value proposition they had been, and he would not be buying any more of them. But all through the ‘90s and the early ‘00s, companies continued snapping up newspapers, and newspaper companies continued expanding their facilities.

For there to be buyers, of course, there have to be sellers, but Shafer doesn’t think any of those sellers were looking ahead to the crash of the newspaper in the Internet age—rather, their owners were just tired of being in the newspaper business and wanted some fast cash. The first ones with the foresight to get out were some small newspaper owners, but more notably the Thomson family, who owned over 140 papers in the mid ‘90s but had exited the market by 2000, investing in electronic information instead and, in 2007, buying Reuters.

Thomson had seen its profit margins fall from 33.9% in 1987 to 17.6% in 1997, and saw the writing on the wall. Others didn’t—and between news readers’ migration to the Internet and the recession that arrived in 2007, newspaper advertising revenues have fallen from their early-2000s peak to levels not seen since the 1950s.

Unlike the tech bubble, the newspaper bubble won’t come back because it can’t. Many of the businesses that once supported newspapers with ads don’t exist on the same level anymore (such as competing department stores and grocery stores) or have found better places to put their ad dollars (the Web, television and Craigslist) or have discovered that they don’t need to spend ad dollars anymore to sell their goods and services (Craigslist again).

As I blogged the other day, newspapers’ monopoly on advertising is gone and never coming back. That makes continued survival a problem.

Shafer notes a current theory that suggests small-town newspapers and national dailies will survive, but major regional dailies could be dead within 5 years as the current generation of print newspaper readers is not being replaced.

Isn’t it amazing how quickly newspapers are imploding? Here we have a national, or even international institution whose foundations were at one time considered bedrock solid, part of the very fabric of society itself. Now in just the space of a decade or so they’re struggling for survival as people find they can replace them in their lives with something better.

Sort of makes you wonder if print book publishers might see their future written there as well. Well, actually it’s pretty clear they do, and that’s why they’re fighting Amazon so hard.

 
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