Why Print Newspapers (And Gas Cars) Will Die All At Once

I started drafting this blog post a couple of years ago, in 2018. It hasn’t come true yet for newspapers (I predicted within three years and was wrong), but I decided to publish it anyway, because the pictures are so great. And I’ve gratuitously added gas-powered cars into the headline, because the transition to EVs will be the same story.

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Pacific Electric streetcars awaiting destruction in 1956

If you think print newspapers will die off slowly, think again.

Newspaper presses are more likely to stop running all at once, all over the country, within a few months of each other. When print advertising revenues hit that tipping point where newspapers lose money on every press run, most newspaper companies will either go bankrupt or liquidate their print operations and go all digital. Whether or not people still want to read print.

This will be shocking for many, after decades of a seemingly immortal institution and invincible business model. I believe this will happen in the next three years, with few exceptions. The presses will be scrapped, the delivery trucks sold, and that will be the end.

Why the cataclysm? Because that’s how most technological eras end.

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No more ‘screen time’ for these screens!

1956, for example, was a shocking year for rail transportation in the U.S. It was the year that most steam locomotives got junked in scrapyards, and also the year many electric streetcars went to their grave.

Why 1956? Because it became clear that year to the rail business operators that these machines would never make economic sense to operate again. Ten years prior, right after WWII, diesel locomotives had become more cost-effective than steam to operate, and also more powerful. But steam hung in there for a few more years, because the locomotives were already paid for, while new diesel replacements had to be purchased.

The tipping point came once enough diesel locomotives were in place that you could no longer financially justify all the infrastructure required to run the steam ones: the water towers, the refueling stations (coal or oil), the maintenance operations, the extra operating personnel.

So the railroads scrapped the steam locomotives all at once. Which must have been a shock to generations of people who’d lived through over 100 years of steam’s dominance.

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A steam locomotive in the scrapyard.

Epilogue

Did people miss the steam locomotives? Probably. But their boiler fires killed a lot of workers, and they made the air pretty bad to breathe, too.

Will people miss print newspapers? Probably, but they also waste a lot of paper.

Gas-powered cars? We’ll see.

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