Print is dead. It’s delightfully early to say it definitively, but I agree with the harsh prediction Steve Ballmer of Microsoft told editors at the Washington Post earlier this month:

There will be no media consumption left in ten years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.

The defenses, like Bill Virgil’s defense in the local Seattle newspaper, have been particularly underwhelming:

The American newspaper, after all, has been around longer than the country has, beginning with the appearance of Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick in Boston in 1690… [Over] three centuries the American newspaper has grown with the country, survived wars, economic panics and depressions, adapted to and adopted technology ranging from photography to the telegraph to high-speed presses and survived the emergence of competing information technologies, including radio and TV.

But the last few years should have taught us that no technology (even print!) is sacred and people are remarkably willing and happy to adapt to new technologies. In 2003, I attended a panel in New York where top publishers were gathered to discuss the future of print. I made the point that blogs, social networks, and RSS were a perfect triple threat to the print industry, delivering the content, credibility and distribution that only traditional media companies had previously been able to deliver. I used the example of a music industry suddenly crippled by peer to peer file sharing as a warning that ancient industries could topple in a day, but the fear was minimal. Today, among continual layoffs, it’s a reality. Here are the facts:

1. Print circulation is down for U.S. Newspapers:

2. Readership is down for U.S. Newspapers in all age groups:

3. Readership is down for all print media.
          (Care to guess what it will be in 2012?)

4. Mobile devices will be a knockout blow:

The fundamental reason that print is dead is that news thrives online and comes alive in a way that it can’t in print, becoming much more valuable than ever before. A rough and simplified timeline looks like this:

  • 1998 personalization via MyYahoo
  • 1999 proliferation of niche content via Blogger and LiveJournal
  • 2003 distribution made easy via FeedBurner and NewsGator
  • 2004 reputation made transparent via LinkedIn
  • 2005 participation encouraged via Digg
  • 2007 socialization driven by Friendfeed
  • 2008 conversation made easy by Disqus
  • 2009 mobilization driven by Apple

Mobilization will prove the tipping point that drives print off the cliff. As we speak, I check Google Reader on my Blackberry to find a steady stream of breaking content from major and niche news sources that I trust. I read these articles, and the related content they are linked to, and leave comments and invite comments back. I flag the articles I’m interested, share others with my friends and colleagues, and check out what they are reading. Incredibly fun, incredibly valuable, much more than news was ten years ago.

Instead of wasting time propping up a dying medium, Bill Virgil should relish the fact that the news business in thriving like never before, and focus his energy on the every expanding possibilities online.

6/23 update: Newspapers face worst year for ad revenue on record

7/24 update: Uh Oh: Newspaper Digital Revenue Suffering, Too

8/01 update: Washington Post Reeling

8/04 update: Newspaper slide: Even worse than we thought?

Bottom Line: News will thrive, but print will die. If you are an entrepreneur, plan on the death of print and be happily surprised if more than a handful of outlets survive. If you are a traditional media  company, recognize that your mission is the message, not the medium, kill you print publications before they kill you, and focus on an online news industry that will thrive and grow for the foreseeable future.

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