Print newspapers are doomed and we all know it. The future is digital – online, on-mobile, on-whatever-comes-along – and the morning paper that has been a feature of British life for more than two centuries is heading for oblivion.

So when should we expect the familiar national titles to disappear from the newsstands? Perhaps understandably it’s not a question aired much in the papers themselves, but we can be sure it is regularly chewed over at management and board meetings and around the water coolers in newsrooms. 

Here is a calculation of the kind they are talking about. Take the average annual loss of sales of the main paid-for daily titles over the past five years, then project those trends into the future and you see dates on which, assuming conditions don’t change in some way, the circulations reach zero.* Thus:

That’s a scary picture, and all the more so when you remember that the presses have to stop long before Year Zero – the Independent’s daily sale was around 40,000 when it abandoned print last year and it will be surprising if anybody else leaves it that late. So you might clip a year or two off those projections. 

Of course these titles will continue to operate online (where some are thriving), but in each case the end of print will represent both a cultural milestone and,  as the experience at the Independent showed, the loss of jobs for a lot of people.  

Then again, maybe this is all too gloomy and new factors will emerge to prolong the life of print. What might they be? Two seem worth considering. The first is the possibility that there is a hard core of print readers out there who will continue to buy papers so long as they are able to and whose stubbornness might slow or even halt the decline. The second is that consolidation and innovation of various kinds might make a difference.

Sun, Mirror, Mail

Before looking at those, however, we should acknowledge that it’s unlikely anything can save the print Sun and Mirror from an early demise (the Mirror for these purposes includes the Scottish Daily Record). Once market leaders, these two have been watching their print readerships collapse for years and they are now both losing sales at the catastrophic rate of about 15,000 per month.** Every day, in other words, 500 fewer people across the country pay for the Sun, and the same goes for the Mirror.  

Managements are looking harder and harder at the economics. Think of all the costs of producing a national newspaper every day – buying paper and shipping it in, designing pages and tailoring words to fit, selling advertisements, printing on industrial presses, delivering bulky, perishable goods by lorry and van all across the country and paying the various kinds of retailer their slice. It’s a huge burden on balance sheets and all the harder to justify when you know the only way is down.

We can safely assume that medium-term planning at both the Mirror and the Sun does not include print and those in charge are probably already wondering who will blink first. Most would tip the Mirror but it is worth remembering that the Sun is now losing money for Rupert Murdoch and the desperate last bid to prop up revenues with a gambling arm, SunBet, does not seem to be working. If either title is still publishing in print in five years’ time it will be surprising.

The Daily Mail’s decline may be slower but it is relentless and apparently gathering pace. An average annual loss of 82,000 sales a year in the five years 2007-12 was followed by an average of 87,000 in 2012-17. Now things seem to be worse: in the past six months alone 71,000 buyers have deserted the Mail.** That is 12,000 per month or 450 a day. On such evidence it is hard to see the print Mail still being there 10 years from now.

The old broadsheets and the Star and Express

Elsewhere in the market, however, things may be a little less terrifying. In particular, the old broadsheets – the Guardian, Times, Financial Times and Telegraph – might have a few more print years in them. The FT, though it seems very near the brink, is a special case with a niche market that is rich and cosmopolitan, so it may be safer than it appears.

For the Guardian, recent figures suggest that perhaps that hard core of dedicated print lovers is finally revealing itself. An average decline of 34,000 print sales a year in 2007-12 became an average decline of 12,000 a year in 2012-2017 – and in the past six months there has actually been a tiny increase. So it’s possible the Guardian’s Year Zero might edge farther into the future, though we should bear in mind that what counts is when it reaches the point when printing ceases to be viable, which is more likely to be 60,000 or 75,000 than the Independent‘s 40,000.

Telegraph sales tell a similar story. It lost a shocking average of 64,000 readers annually back in 2007-2012 but its decline has since slowed dramatically and in the latest year sales were roughly stable. As for the Times, it has been defying gravity, with sales slightly up over the past five years so that on the present trend it goes on indefinitely – though no one can be banking on that.

For the old broadsheets, therefore, the grid above might be gloomier than justified, though as we will see other factors need to be considered.

That leaves the Express and the Star, both of which are in relatively stately decline, having apparently found niches of their own. One of them might just make it to 2025, though only if there is profit in it – their proprietor, Richard Desmond, is not a man to live with losses.

Mitigating factors

Could consolidation delay the doom for print? Not by much. Merging titles is problematic in this market. Combining, say, the print Times and print Telegraph into a daily Times-Telegraph newspaper might make sense in isolation, but these two are rivals online, where the future lies, and they will be wary of losing precious brand identity. The same can be said of almost any pairing you can imagine – Mail-Express, Telegraph-Mail, Times-Guardian

Instead of consolidation, managements might hope to extend their print life by picking up readers abandoned by others. When the Express opts out of print, for example; the Mail and Telegraph might hope to benefit if they are still around. History suggests, however, that a lot of readers simply go missing on these occasions, and with sales falling globally any benefits are likely to be short-lived.

As for innovation, people point to the success of Metro and i but these are not easily copied. Although commuters might like a free Express or Times as an alternative to Metro, the economics of splitting up a market that depends on such tight margins must be doubtful. And when it comes to no-frills, low-price papers, the i has probably mopped up the 250,000 daily sales that are out there.

Of course it’s possible that something unexpected will come along to add a few years to print, but sadly modern experience is not encouraging: if a light appears at the end of the tunnel, in other words, it is most likely to be on the front of an onrushing train.

The grid above relates only to circulation, and circulation is just one of the variables that will determine when these titles abandon print. Profitability is obviously another – the Sun and the Guardian, for example, already lose money and while that continues the accountants will find the attraction of dumping print costs all the greater.

It is also easy to imagine that as sales continue to fall, budgets will be squeezed even more than at present and papers will become thinner, leading print buyers to desert more rapidly than they otherwise might.

This downward-spiral logic applies to advertising. The past two years have been bad for newspaper display advertising and a turnaround is urgently needed, not least because the fewer copies you sell, the less advertisers pay for each ad. And finally, falling total sales inevitably imply rising unit costs, especially as there will be steadily fewer other producers with whom to split bills for printing and distribution.

What might happen

It is probably a mug’s game trying to guess just how all this will end, but here, for what it is worth, is a possibility that seems plausible to me.

After the first of the big papers abandons print – let’s say the Mirror in three or four years’ time – a sense of doom about print overtakes both the industry and the public. Much greater urgency creeps into the thinking of newspaper managements and it begins to look smarter to get out than stay in.

The balance of costs is by then only one factor. Managers will say that if the future is digital they should show they believe in it and break with the inky, dead-tree past. The byword will be ‘digital-only’. 

The press is a very close-knit industry despite its affectations of rivalry, and the companies are prone to group-think, so instead of a series of dismal one-by-one announcements there could be a big bang, maybe around 2025, with almost all the rest of the titles stopping their daily presses within a few months.

Some will probably offer a Sunday-only paper or a weekly magazine, and perhaps a couple of the old broadsheet titles will hang on as dailies into the 2030s, though they will be expensive and distributed only in the big cities or perhaps London alone.

When that big bang comes, the great, sad obituaries of the printed morning newspaper will be written and many who have seen newspapers in their pomp will shed a tear,, but the bitter truth is that for most people in this country – that is, for the very large numbers who have stopped buying them over the past few years or who never started buying them – print papers are already dead.

* Based on Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures in a database maintained by Wikipedia here.

** See June print ABCs here