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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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