Until the 1920s newspapers were the only mass circulation news and information media. But that changed with radio and accelerated with television. The US population has grown by almost 100 million since the 1960s, but since 1990, when newspaper circulation peaked at 62 million, readership has been declining.
Individual owners and powerful families -- who at least balanced profits with the ego satisfaction involved in putting out what they considered a quality product – have given way to shareholder-owned national chains that demand twice the profits of other industries. Meanwhile, readers and advertisers are turning to the Internet. If current trends persist, within another decade, half of a newspaper’s income and most of its readers will come from the Internet.
Newsroom staffs have been slashed, unions have been forced to accept cuts, and coverage has been dumbed down. More than 44,000 news industry employees, at least 34,000 of them newspaper journalists, have lost their jobs since 2001. The result is that major stories go untold, and many communities are being ignored. As Ed Herman has put it, the civic connection that should be nurtured by the print press is being frayed: “Newspapers were once thought to bring communities together. That’s not the case anymore.”
Some journalists have already migrated to the blogosphere. But once in cyberspace they tend to become commentators, while most of the solid information people do get continues to come from the remaining newsroom reporters. Slate, Salon and the Huffington Post offer far more commentary than news. Talk is cheap, reporting isn’t.
There are some positive trends. Readership of print weeklies continues to grow, using a part “controlled,” part free circulation model that gives most readers free access and advertisers a guaranteed minimum reach. Free community newspapers also have some momentum. But mid-sized metropolitan dailies are very much at risk.
One strategy with some promise is to combine a return to civic journalism with the local brand idea by creating comprehensive, interactive websites. One version is the “hub” model, a newspaper – but it could be a radio station -- that pulls together community-based websites with stories, photos, blogs, events, and so on, including material posted by local residents. The idea is to revive community connections and re-invigorate local journalism. It remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient commitment and follow through.
The Internet is simultaneously challenging the survival of newspapers and being touted as a possible savior. Internet revenue from newspaper websites is increasing up to 30 percent a year and publishers are eager to boost web traffic. The irony is that in their eagerness to ramp up web operations, they are simultaneously slashing newsroom staffs and running reporters ragged. At many dailies, reporters have to produce frequent online updates, post blog items, and conduct video interviews. Some big dailies seem to have a plan and enough money to implement it. But most are just cutting and pasting.
The top 30 newspaper websites get a combined total of about 100 million monthly visits. It sounds like a lot. But according to Neilson Net Ratings, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo get over 100 million each.
European publishers have been investing more aggressively in redesign of their papers, along with new distribution systems. In Scandinavia, for example, where Internet use is high and public broadcasting is strong, newspapers are in dramatically better condition than here. One difference is that they don’t hesitate to take a strong front-page stand on issues like genetic modification of food and global warming. This is known as the “campaigning newspaper.” When the position is openly stated and supported by solid reporting, it doesn’t lead to charges of unreasonable bias or a loss of credibility. In Britain, The Independent has participated in numerous campaigns, even promoting rallies and protest marches. In general European papers are more engaged and adventurous. But European citizens also take the role of newspapers in building a democratic society more seriously.
The Bottom line is that newspapers may survive the current challenge, but they will probably become mostly digital.
Originally posted on March 22, 2008. Second of four parts. Material in this series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.
Next: Radio’s Delicate Condition
Next: Radio’s Delicate Condition