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Posted by on May 2, 2008 in Media | 6 comments

Newspapers I: On The Brink of Extinction?

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When I came into the newspaper business in 1967 at the tender age of 20, most reporters and editors drank like fish and smoked like chimneys (on the job), lived and died for the news scoop, type was set on massive linotype machines using molten lead, and when the presses of morning and evening newspapers rolled it was like printing money.

Today newsrooms are like vegetarian cafeterias, the scoop is most often the purview of cable news channels, or Internet sites, the entire typesetting and printing process is electronic, and when the presses roll for the remaining morning papers (there are no evening papers as such anymore), one can only wonder how many years it will be before they are silenced.

The reasons for the long downward spiral of the industry are complex and multi-layered, but basically boil down to something that I was saying well before I wrote my last story and quit a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks:

Newspapers will not survive if they don’t change and change damned quickly by embracing the Internet and hugging it to their collective bosom.

I take no satisfaction in being right. (And yes, it was weird to feel like a fireman without a ladder when the first aircraft slammed into the World Trade Center on that beautiful September morning.)

The New York Times, which has in fact embraced the Internet, although years too late, is leading the charge to oblivion. Its circulation fell another 4 percent in the last quarter and ad revenues were down 12.5 percent in March from the previous year. And perhaps the most important statistic of all: Its share price has dropped 20 percent since last July and its Standard & Poor’s debt rating is one notch above junk, while there are rumblings about hostile takeover bids.

The picture out on the hustings is just as ugly.

Average circulation for the 530 biggest dailies is down 3.6 percent in the past six months, and for Sunday papers 4.6 percent lower. Ad revenues are down 22.3 percent at Media General, one of the biggest chains, while total newspaper revenues fell to $42.2 billion in 2007.

The Economist does its usual thoroughgoing job of summarizing this slow-motion train wreck, but I think it misses the point in blaming much of the erosion on a banged-up economy. This is because newspapers were not in good shape before the economic slowdown.

But not all is doom and gloom. The Economist notes that:

“[Rupert Murdoch] bought the Wall Street Journal last year, and is investing in a vigorous expansion of its political coverage and international news. This foray on to the traditional turf of the Times seems to be working: the Journal’s circulation is rising. Another flourishing outlet is the web-only Huffington Post, which is fast evolving beyond a series of political blogs into a fully fledged online newspaper with liberal sensibilities close to those of the New York Times.”

The magazine also had kudos for Brian Tierney, a former public-relations executive who led a group of investors that borrowed heavily to buy my former paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, and its big sister, The Inquirer.

While Tierney has since begun reviving the News and Inky with a vigorous marketing drive, the question remains: Given the extraordinary number of cutbacks and layoffs, did he have to destroy the papers to save them?

Illustration for The Economist by David Simonds

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice
  • superdestroyer

    The collapse of newspapers probably has as much to do with the phenomenon of bowling alone than the internet. When most urban school systems fail to graduate half of their students and fail to educate many of the graduates, the number of newspaper readers is going to do down. When the U.S. is filled with immigrants who organize around ethnic and family organizations, they are not going develop the habit of reading newspapers. When the crime rate is so high in urban areas, that people communte from the exurbs, they are not going to have time to read the newspaper.

    Yet, the editorial boards of almost all big city newspapers have been consistent in their editorial support for policies and programs that ensure that people are bowling alone.

    You have to care about your community to read the community newspaper. Big cities are organize to ensure that people stop caring about their community.

  • shaun

    superdestroyer:

    It is obvious that you remain clueless to how off-putting your racist bilge is. Is there anything on God’s green earth that you don’t connect to blacks and/or immigrants?

    Shame. Shame on you.

  • superdestroyer

    Shaun,

    I did not mention blacks in my comments. However, it is a fact that blacks read newspaper much less than whites and that Hispanics and Asians read the newspaper less than blacks.

    Philadelphia only graduates 55% of its entering freshmen and many of those who do graduate are not really literate. Yet, the elite whites are newspapers whose children attend majority white prep schools, who lived in the good neighborhoods, and who attend private universities, refuse to even face the idea that their support for unlimited immigration, going easy on criminals, and putting social engineering in front of academic learning was limiting their own customer bases.

    The best way to ensure that people read newspaper is to ensure that they are educated, connected, and safe. That is three things that virtually all big city newspapers have opposed and editorialized against.

  • DLS

    Bloggers should not be conceited. (At least Shaun is not childishly self-absorbed, too, as so many other bloggers are.) They are merely using another, newer, more powerful medium of communication than paper.

    Superdestroyer is correct regarding the state of education (and what it implies clearly and obviously about literacy, a subject we hear much about separately). Not everyone lives the life of, say, a typical blogger. Cultural influences and lack of personal and intellectual development affect not only literacy but the willingness to read not only newspapers but books (I have sixty boxes of them at home and a spare room containing 100 more books if not more, have four currently in the cab of my truck for use at lunchtime today, and so on).

    Why read newspapers or books when you can chatter with your friends in either real-time or with e-mail, check out what the celebs are doing, and enjoy porn on the Internet instead?

  • Idiosyncrat

    SD, would you mind me asking where you live? I’m just curious what drives your perspective on urban dynamics. I only see formerly-blighted urban areas coming back to vibrant life, more often than not the point where people are driven to more affordable suburbs where they get brain dead watching bad TV and engorging their tuchases by eating 2200 calorie Bloomin Onions at the Outback (goofy stereotype, intended… chill, people!). Not to say that there aren’t major urban problems in many pockets, but all in all things are coming a long way from even a few years ago. But my center reference-point is the warped world of NYC, and despite traveling far and wide most of my anecdotal evidence still operates on the NYC-LA-SF-Miami-Boston axis… What’s your reference point?

    Shaun, so very nice to read you again on something not Obama/Clinton/Iraq related again!

  • superdestroyer

    Idiosyncrat,

    I live in Northern Virginia where if you child settles on attending George Mason University, you are considered a failure as a parent and the newpaper readership is about twice as high as it is in majority black Prince Georges County Maryland.

    What data do you have to believe that NYC is doing great. the NYC schools at least do better than Philly in that they graduate 65% of the entering freshmen. Of course, the school system is only 14% white and many of those are probably immigrants. A school system that is 37% Hispanic and 37% black is probably not producing enough future newspaper readers for the existing newspapers to survive.

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