Saturday, August 26, 2006

Will Newspapers Go the Way of the Edsel?

The days of the traditional hard-copy newspaper are numbered. Print journalism, of course, has been around for centuries, but the ultimate fate of the daily paper may not be unsimilar to that of the Edsel, Ford Motor Corporation's infamous and most spectacular failure.

According to this week's Economist, newspaper circulation and advertising revenue have declined steadily in recent years, as generational tastes in informational media evolve, and as the Internet continues to transform the news business:

Of all the “old” media, newspapers have the most to lose from the internet. Circulation has been falling in America, western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand for decades (elsewhere, sales are rising). But in the past few years the web has hastened the decline. In his book “The Vanishing Newspaper”, Philip Meyer calculates that the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition. That sort of extrapolation would have produced a harrumph from a Beaverbrook or a Hearst, but even the most cynical news baron could not dismiss the way that ever more young people are getting their news online. Britons aged between 15 and 24 say they spend almost 30% less time reading national newspapers once they start using the web.

Advertising is following readers out of the door. The rush is almost unseemly, largely because the internet is a seductive medium that supposedly matches buyers with sellers and proves to advertisers that their money is well spent. Classified ads, in particular, are quickly shifting online. Rupert Murdoch, the Beaverbrook of our age, once described them as the industry's rivers of gold—but, as he said last year, “Sometimes rivers dry up.” In Switzerland and the Netherlands newspapers have lost half their classified advertising to the internet.

Newspapers have not yet started to shut down in large numbers, but it is only a matter of time. Over the next few decades half the rich world's general papers may fold. Jobs are already disappearing. According to the Newspaper Association of America, the number of people employed in the industry fell by 18% between 1990 and 2004. Tumbling shares of listed newspaper firms have prompted fury from investors. In 2005 a group of shareholders in Knight Ridder, the owner of several big American dailies, got the firm to sell its papers and thus end a 114-year history. This year Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, attacked the New York Times Company, the most august journalistic institution of all, because its share price had fallen by nearly half in four years.

Having ignored reality for years, newspapers are at last doing something. In order to cut costs, they are already spending less on journalism. Many are also trying to attract younger readers by shifting the mix of their stories towards entertainment, lifestyle and subjects that may seem more relevant to people's daily lives than international affairs and politics are. They are trying to create new businesses on- and offline. And they are investing in free daily papers, which do not use up any of their meagre editorial resources on uncovering political corruption or corporate fraud. So far, this fit of activity looks unlikely to save many of them. Even if it does, it bodes ill for the public role of the Fourth Estate.

Read the whole thing. There are reasons to be hopeful about the future of newpapers. Citizen journalists -- mostly bloggers, but anyone with a mouse, keyboard, and a modem -- are not likely to overthrow the mainstream press any time soon, though old-line news establishments have taken the blogosphere seriously, and are slowly beginning to adapt by incorporating blog-related content and opinion in mainstream news coverage.

The Economist article is also interesting in noting how the decline in newspapers' viability threatens the print medium's traditional role in society as a political watchdog.
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are only the most famous examples of journalists whose work exposed corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels of government. Newspapers overall have historically been the main source of political information for the average citizen -- and thus print journalism has been the traditional source facilitating government accountability.

I have been an avid newspaper reader for over 20 years, and I'm now a blogger who obviously enjoys and benefits from the bountiful opportunities of online information. I nevertheless hope the traditional paper hangs on for a while, as there's nothing like waking up every morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and the local daily, and beginning the day by catching up with the happenings of the world in which we live.

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