Newspaper Triage: Which American Paper Will Be The First To Kill Its Print Edition?

I spent several days last week asking a bunch of newspaper execs and other assorted smart folk variant of the following question:

“Which American newspaper will be the first to stop publishing a print edition?”

For simplicity’s sake, I told everyone to focus only on major markets. The answers fell into roughly three camps.

Camp One: It makes sense to do this in a heavily-unionized, blue-collar (or post-blue-collar) town, where the newspaper has been struggling. The danger is that, well, a lot of readers kind of automatically lose, since the population in these towns skew older. And if I may judge from the experience of the older people close to me (hello, mom and dad and grandma), they may not get in the habit of going online for information until, well, ever. But a company does this to crush costs; sell off the plant and the presses and swallow hard and adjust, quickly, to a shrinking newspaper economy. We’ll call this the “Toledo Scenario” or the “Pittsburgh Scenario.” These are the towns in which the Block family, which owns both papers, recently underwent long and wrenching union negotiations, and claimed that last year its Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lost $20 million. Flies In The Ointment: If these towns papers’ are failing because of lack of local ad support—instead of going elsewhere for ad options—it doesn’t exactly address the core problem.

Camp Two: It makes sense to do this in a city where the paper is actually doing well—as long as you pick a vibrant locale with lots of young folk and tech-savvy workers. You do this, then, to get ahead of a future readership shift before you start feeling pain, not after. Let’s call this the “Raleigh scenario,” home of Research Triangle Park and a bajillion college and grad students and where—correct me if I’m wrong—McClatchy has been doing decently with its News & Observer. Flies In The Ointment: Raleigh and its environs are also popular with retirees; see previous for concerns regarding that data point. Also: Why do something that means inflicting serious pain if you’re not already in said pain to begin with?

Camp Three: It makes sense to do this in a top-tier market full of affluent, wired professionals, in which the daily paper is inexplicably tanking. This is the “Boston Scenario” or the “San Francisco scenario;” rich cities, tough times at the daily newspaper, perhaps these places are where the flight to the Web is making itself apparent. Flies In The Ointment: There are some, even if you pick a paper that’s lost over $300 million since mid-2000, like Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Said flies can be found here, because the San Francisco Chronicle is my choice, and what I wrote about in my BusinessWeek column this week.

I do think within two years, maybe even less, a major newspaper company will go all-digital with one newspaper.

These are my guesses. Yours?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.