W. Joseph Campbell

Newspapers ‘not dead yet’: But a slow death, still

In New York Times, Newspapers on June 12, 2010 at 10:03 am

The venerable and often-contrarian Economist magazine this week offers an intriguing if superficial defense of the newspaper, declaring in an editorial that they’re “not dead yet.”

Indeed, the Economist asks with a hint of snark, “Whatever happened to the death of newspapers? A year ago the end seemed near.”

It adds:

“The recession threatened to remove the advertising and readers that had not already fled to the internet. Newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle were chronicling their own doom. America’s Federal Trade Commission launched a round of talks about how to save newspapers. Should they become charitable corporations? Should the state subsidise them? It will hold another meeting on June 15th. But the discussions now seem out of date.”

The Economist notes that U.S. newspapers, “which inhabit the most troubled corner of the global industry, have not only survived but often returned to profit.”

But the data the Economist invokes point to another interpretation: Newspapers are still dying, albeit a slower death.

The pressures on American newspapers have scarcely abated. And I’m hardly ready to retreat from my view that their predicament “is as bleak as it is unprecedented.”

Despite the snark–”whatever happened to the death of newspapers?”–they are in peril still.

The Economist cites recent estimates of the American Society of News Editors that 13,500 newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 2007. (The Economist didn’t mention it, but ASNE also says that American newsrooms since 2001 have lost more than 25 per cent of their fulltime staff.)

“Car and film reviewers have gone,” the Economist notes. “So have science and general business reporters. Foreign bureaus have been savagely pruned. Newspapers are less complete as a result.”

Indeed, many U.S. dailies are mere husks of their former fat selves. They offer fewer pages, publish fewer articles, have fewer reporters–all of which often adds up to an uninteresting product little able to compete in the digital century.

To that point, the Economist says:

“It is grim to forecast still more writers losing their jobs. But whether newspapers are thrown onto doorsteps or distributed digitally, they need to deliver something that is distinctive.”

Readers, it says, invoking a familiar bromide, “will pay for news if they think it has value. Newspapers need to focus relentlessly on that.”

But there are great numbers of Americans who find the news routinely irrelevant.

Nearly 20 percent of adult Americans go without news during a typical day, according to a Pew Research Center’s media-use survey in 2008. (Ten years earlier, the percentage of American adults who went newsless was 14 percent.)

Among adults 18-to-24-years-old these days, 34 percent say they go newsless, according to Pew Research–data I cite in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

This declining constituency for news offers no encouragement for newspapers.

And newspapers have been complicit in their decline. Their credibility—the notion that they play it straight in reporting the news—is deeply doubted among Americans.

Slightly more than 20 percent of adult Americans believe all or most of what they read in their local newspaper, Pew data say. For the  New York Times, the believability quotient is 18 percent. It’s 16 percent for USA Today.

On top of all that, the worst recession in years has made it nearly impossible for prominent newspaper companies, such as the New York Times and the Chicago-based Tribune Co., to dig out from staggering loads of debt.

Another factor contributing to the long decline of newspapers is the fractured business model in which newspapers conveniently and effectively brought together buyers and sellers through advertising. For years, advertising has been deserting the press for the Internet, where bringing together buyers and sellers is cheaper and far more timely and efficient.

The Internet also has unbundled media content, meaning there’s no need for anyone to buy a newspaper just for sports news. Or international news. It’s all online, in discrete packages and in unmatched variety. News à la carte is irresistible in its appeal–and can’t be matched by printed newspapers.

None of these powerful trends has been reversed.

Alas, discussions about the death of newspapers scarcely are “out of date.”

WJC

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