The Slow Death of Traditional Newspapers

As a companion piece to my post a few days ago regarding Christiane Amanpour's remarks about blogging, have a look at Andrew Sullivan's latest column for The Times Online. Lot's of interesting statistics:

Between March and September the 500 biggest newspapers in America reported an average circulation decline of 4.6%. In six months. That's close to a 10% decline per year. No newspapers showed any but fractional gains. It is therefore a near-certainty that many towns and cities in America will no longer have a newspaper after the down-turn. And that may apply not just to small names but to some big ones as well. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has gone from a circulation of 1.1m to 739,000 since the turn of the millennium. Its staff has been halved. Morale has never been lower.

Landmark names - the news equivalent of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford - are increasingly on the chopping block. The Chicago Tribune has seen its weekday circulation collapse by 8% in the past year. The Gannett company, which owns scores of papers, has announced a 10% cut in staff after a 5% reduction earlier this year. The Christian Science Monitor has gone from a daily to a website with a weekly print edition. The Rocky Mountain News is for sale. The profit margins of even the most established papers, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, are so slim, the future looks extremely dodgy. Some analysts are even predicting that The New York Times will go belly up by the spring.

Print newspapers are rapidly becoming the exclusive domains of doctor's office waiting rooms and lengthy train rides. To a certain degree this is not so terrible. Newsprint was never an especially good way of transmitting information. Reading things on a computer or a Kindle seems far more pleasant. If it were just a matter of an antiquated delivery system giving way to better technology then there would be little to remark upon.

The trouble, as Sullivan notes, is internet advertising is not yet at the level it needs to be to make up for losses from the print version of the paper. This makes for a bleak economic forecast for newspapers of all sizes.

It is sometimes said that blogging will replace traditional journalism. But this is perfectly absurd, as Sullivan points out:

The terrifying problem is that a one-man blog cannot begin to do the necessary labour-intensive, skilled reporting that a good newspaper sponsors and pioneers. A world in which reporting becomes even more minimal and opinion gets even more vacuous and unending is not a healthy one for a democracy. Perhaps private philanthropists will step in and finance not-for-profit journalistic centres, where investigative and foreign reporting can be invested in and disseminated by blogs and online sites. Maybe reporter-bloggers will start rivalling opinion-mongers such as me and give the whole enterprise some substance. Maybe papers can slim down sufficiently to produce a luxury print issue and a viable online product. There's always a hunger for news, after all.

Indeed. Most blogs are parasitic on old media. In fact, one of the main functions of blogs is to direct people towards interesting material they might have overlooked. There is very little original journalism to be found among blogs.


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Worse yet, some blogs are now passing as news-services. They are those which often have a one-issue or decidedly one-sided view on certain subjects. They are most often those which complain about the "main-stream-media."

By Lynn David (not verified) on 07 Dec 2008 #permalink

To be fair, most of the railing against Traditional media is aimed at the blatant "Some sources say = I couldn't find anyone but myself who was willing to say it", burying the lede, 'she-said-he-said' stenography, and their insistence on portraying both sides of an issue as equals when only one side has all the evidence and all the intellectual honesty. There is good journalism out there, but you won't find it in national newspapers or in traditional politics reporting.

I've watched my local newspaper, the Silicon Valley -based San Jose Mercury News, shrink alarmingly over the years. I fear for its demise, especially since it's a very valuable player for justice in the valley communities.

It routinely questions the behavior of elected officials who seem to think that a victory at the ballot box gives license to behave badly toward employees and citizens, or those who seem to think that in difficult financial times, their own salaries are of primary budgetary importance.

It's reported on the bad handling of several court cases, which has sometimes led to overturned convictions or new trials for possibly innocent people.

Most recently, it turned its attention to the nasty habit of San Jose cops to arrest people for public drunkenness without a breathalizer or other test, especially people who happen to be Hispanic or inclined to question whey they were stopped. The police claimed they had to do that because there's no local "drunk tank" where nonviolent, non-driving drunks can be taken to sober up without an arrest appearing on their record. But further investigation by the newspaper revealed that the local "drunk tank" was closed for lack of police interest a few years ago! There's no other entity in the valley with both the clout and the immunity to demonstrate cops systematically being jerks, rather than supportive of the community they serve.

These examples demonstrate why, when I can read it online, I still subscribe to my local newspaper. When the Merc goes, our best local civil watchdog will have gone, too, and that's to the detriment of all of Silicon Valley.

I'd rather see some non-advertising based publications take over from the MSM. I already subscribe to a number of these in specialized topics.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 08 Dec 2008 #permalink

The biggest competition for print news aren't blogs. Instead the primary competitors are the 24-hour news channels.

We just finished an election season. When I was growing up, If I even heard about the results of a particular caucus or primary it was the next day in the newspaper. Now I can watch the results live, precinct by precinct.

In the 21st century even 12-hour-old news is passe.

By Randy Crum (not verified) on 08 Dec 2008 #permalink

I take exception with the idea that newspapers -- or books for that matter -- are inferior to a kindle.

Newspapers don't need batteries. They work when wet. They are cheap. i can sit on one, fold it, carry it in a bag, and never worry that it won't boot up. What happens to a kindle if you drop it?

I can buy one and hand it to a friend (no DRM!). While newspapers use up trees, they are nowhere near as resource intensive as even the smallest digital device, which requires many hundreds of components, all of which must be assembled... and contain some pretty toxic compounds (you wouldn't want to cut yourself with a fragment of LCD screen).

Newspapers are simple to use, as well -- I know nobody who doesn't intuitively know how to read one. Try that with any digital device. While iPods and such are simple enough, the even a kindle has a learning curve.

Books and newspapers, in a technological sense, work.

The problem isn't technological. The problem is economic and social. The problem is the relaxation of media ownership, the rise of television, the issue of how to pay for news that isn't linked to entertainment in a private media environment where it's a for-profit business.

Techies love to deride any technology more than a week old. They forget that there's a reason most people aren't early adopters.

For all that this is a legitimate concern, I question the argument that because big newspapers are losing circulation, small newspapers are automatically in trouble.

I can think of at least one reason big newspapers would collectively shrink while small newspapers don't: More people are getting their state/country/world/business/whatever news from non-newspaper sources... while still, potentially, getting local news from the local paper (since there's really no alternative).

Of course, that isn't necessarily the case, but I'd want to see some real justification for the claim that small papers are in trouble just because big ones are.

By Michael Ralston (not verified) on 08 Dec 2008 #permalink

I would take slight issue with this comment: "Newsprint was never an especially good way of transmitting information. Reading things on a computer or a Kindle seems far more pleasant."

I've always found paper a lot easier to read than the screen. Not least because online there are so many other tempting links to click, whereas paper holds fewer distractions.

Although I will freely admit, most of my view of world news comes from whatever headlines Yahoo puts up when I go to check my mail.

I also wanted to comment on the statement that "reading things on a computer or Kindle seems far more pleasant". I side for the actual newspaper--in addition to all the great things about paper listed in some of the above comments--you can also cut out articles of interest and keep them conveniently in your wallet. Newsprint paper is so much thinner and easier to fold than printer paper!

Those who criticize reading on the computer as hard haven't used the reader devices, such as the Kindle. Much better than a computer screen and just as good as paper.

Yes, you can come up with a list of advantages of a physical newspaper, but they are mostly trivial and useful only in niche situations, such as the list by Jesse above. I'm sure that horses have many advantages over cars, but that didn't prevent them from becoming an irrelevancy in the modern world.

Kindle-like devices will replace newspapers and magazines, eventually, but they probably will need larger screens, a lower price, and color.

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 12 Dec 2008 #permalink

From Canada
Finally the nightmare ends. A long post ww11 liberal, urban(too Jewish) dumbed down mainstream media is losing the peoples confidence for coverage of things they care about.
There is in fact not a problem with the organ but the quality. The quality deficit is simply being revealed by better media outlets with equal quality deficit.
The whole media establishment has always been unrepresentitive of America as she is in her real energy and foundational beliefs. Always too ethnic and upper class and now with the quota empire it is just going from dumb to dumber.
Until the media has a dominance of true Americans (Yankees and southerners) at the top it will not attract the thoughtful, interested, average mainstreet American.
The big media, or middle media, is too unAmerican, UnChristian, Un Protestant, now un Catholic , uninteresting,, left wing and always on the wrong side . From fighting commies to raising taxes to fighting creationism. They can't do anything right and now it comes out in their own business. In the past people had to read them. Now they don't.
Its like when rock and roll came and revealed how impoverished the previous music scene had been.
Now to get the big media off the internet.

By Robert Byers (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink