Newspapers of the future will mainly take digital form but will continue to be printed since many consumers are likely to still prefer paper over tablets and smartphones, leading industry executives say.
"The last newspaper will be printed long after I'm gone," said Raju Narisetti, senior vice president of strategy at News Corp., owner of such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and The Times of London.
Narisetti drew a comparison with radio in the early 1950s, when consumers began purchasing televisions quickly, raising concerns that the older technology would disappear. But just as radio has survived as a content form during several decades of technological change, newspapers will also adapt, he said.
"Hardly any of us have actual cameras or radios at home but photography or radio as a content form is stronger than ever," he said. "The same could happen with newspapers."
The printed paper's raison d'être has come into question because readers are spending more time consuming news in digital form. U.S. newspaper circulation peaked at 46.9 million in 2003, then fell into steady decline, dipping to 44.1 million in 2011, the last year reported by the Newspaper Association of America. Print advertising revenue has fallen in tandem and is likely to decline by about 8 percent annually for the next couple of years, according to Ken Doctor of newspaper research firm Newsonomics.
One likely big change is the way newspapers are delivered. Many newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal already outsource their printing, and it's possible the entire printing industry could be rolled up and separated from newspaper companies, Narisetti said.
Looking ever further ahead, newspaper delivery as we know it could disappear. Advanced printing technology could allow consumers to produce entire newspapers at home. "The notion of a daily customized printed paper—in fact one for each family member—could be as normal as having a cup of espresso at home," Narisetti said.
Narisetti acknowledged, however, that print papers will probably continue to be replaced by digital alternatives when it comes to weekday news flow. He predicts that weekday papers may be slimmed down over time, while weekend papers remain robust as ever.
Still, it would be risky to stop publishing outright on any given day. "The biggest mistake a newspaper publisher can make—and few in the U.S. have made—is to actually drop out of their readers lives on some days and then expect those readers to want and need the product on other days," he said. "It will only hasten the notion of irrelevancy."
Ben Hughes, deputy CEO of the Financial Times, also said he expects publication to continue through the week. "Newspaper readers seek out original, agenda-setting news with global insight and analysis to complement the journalism they consume in a growing number of other formats, and this is an essential part of their daily routine, " he said.
The FT continues to pour money into the print edition, with a new version launched on Sept. 15. Hughes said it will "make the best use of that format by offering more graphics, elegant page design and easier navigation between news, analysis and trends."
One paper that could see potentially drastic change is The Washington Post, which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought last year for $250 million. That deal has led to much speculation about Bezos's intentions since one of the best-known newspapers is now owned by a Web tycoon. At the time of the deal, Bezos said the Internet is "transforming almost every element of the news business." He added that "there is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy." Amazon spokesman Craig Berman declined to comment on behalf of Bezos.
Some industry experts aren't convinced print is such a necessity. Newsonomics' Doctor said that as digital revenue continues to grow as a portion of total sales, there may be a point in time when the cost of operating a print business no matter makes sense.
"The question is when you can flip the switch," he said. "Right now, print revenue is still supporting the newsroom."
Doctor said that even big national newspapers generate only 25-30 percent of their revenue from digital platforms. He said that converting to an online-only service won't be practical until the contribution gets closer to 50 percent.
One way to expedite that process: Pricing consumers out of print. "You could charge $800 a year for the print edition and basically force subscribers to switch," he said. "It would accelerate the process."