Newspapers In The Information Age

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Newspapers “should be allowed to die” because they “have led bloated, self-serving lives for so long that no one pays any attention.” That was the assessment of one participant in a discussion about the future of newspapers on the e-zine Hotwired.

Here’s another, from a woman who said she used to write for newspapers: “I rarely read them anymore. What’s the point? … [T]heir value in the digital age escapes me.”

Or what about this rant: “[T]he only parts of the big paper that I read anymore are the restaurant reviews and the movie listings; the national political news is hopelessly pre-digested and value-free, and twice more so for the local news.”

That is just a sampling of the anti-newspaper comments you can find on the Internet, the latest electronic medium to threaten the base of print journalism, and such critiques are evidence of a new trend in the Information Age. One-time loyal readers are abandoning their newspapers in droves, and young, would-be readers are flocking to the Web, the more familiar and high-tech information source of the ’90s. That should give any newspaperman pause.

Unfulfilled prophecies
But will the choice of so many readers to put down their newspapers turn the heads of any newspaper executives. Probably not. Doomsayers have predicted the demise of newspapers since the emergence of television as a mass medium, and their prophecies have not been fulfilled.

The late Marshall McLuhan — a mass communications theorist who coined phrases such as “global village” and “the medium is the message,” and who has been adopted as a hero of Internet groupies — spoke three decades ago of the death of print media, yet he died before the newspaper industry.

Ted Turner, the founder of the powerful and influential Cable News Network, told a newspaper audience in 1980 that its industry would be extinct within a decade. While his electronic venture has made the battle for dominance of the news market more competitive, there are still more than 1,500 daily newspapers in the United States alone.

More recently, Jakob Nielsen, a columnist and distinguished engineer for computer giant Sun Microsystems, linked the fate of newspapers to their ability to compete for classified ads. “I predict that many newspaper companies will go bankrupt in 10 years or less unless newspapers get so hard-core about the Internet that they dominate Web classifieds by mid-1998 in the U.S. and mid-1999 in the rest of the world,” he wrote in his monthly Internet column Alertbox.

The credibility of Nielsen’s prediction, of course, cannot be tested for a few years, but current data does make it suspect. Classified ads remain one of the most reliable sources of revenue growth for newspapers, especially in a tight job market when employers have to advertise more. In the first half of 1997, for example, the Newspaper Association of America reported that classified advertising investments rose 11.4 percent.

Recipe for success
Newspapers and their parent companies have survived the doom-and-gloom forecasts, not to mention economic downturns that have devastated other industries, for several reasons. The obvious explanation is that newspapers provide information that is valuable to the populace. They offer services that other mediums either cannot or do not: obituaries; announcements of births and weddings; and coverage of oft-ignored sports teams. They also keep the public informed — about the world at large and, perhaps more importantly, the communities in which they live.

Executives who have shaped the newspaper industry also have shown some ability to change when circumstances demand it. An example: When the advent of television robbed newspapers of the ability to “break” news, print journalists instead began offering the background, interpretation and detail that the drive for ratings in the TV world does not allow.

Many newspapers also followed the lead of USA Today by offering a more graphically appealing product when the tastes of readers changed. Recently, even the staid New York Times added a splash of color to its pages, and The Washington Post plans to do so in the near future.

The packaging, too, is significant. Newspapers are, and probably always will be, cheap and portable. Yes, news is free, for the most part, on television and the Internet. But readers can peruse their newspapers in a coffee shop, on a train or in the bathroom. Even the biggest boosters of technological innovation acknowledge that newspapers have an edge there. “People won’t work harder, spend more money and give more time to get information they can get from a newspaper,” said Roger Fidler, who is trying to create a computer-based newspaper known as a “flat panel.”

A history of decline
That’s not to say that the road ahead for newspapers will be without its bumps. Problems that have plagued the industry for decades, the loss of readers being foremost among them, still are unresolved. The number of adults who read weekday newspapers has declined from 77.6 percent in 1970 to 58.8 percent in 1996, according to the NAA.

Circulation has been stagnant for nearly four decades, peaking at nearly 62.8 million in 1985 by NAA estimates but then dropping to less than 57 million in 1996 for the first time since 1955. And dozens of newspapers in cities large and small have closed their doors. Although the latest tally of U.S. dailies tops the 1,500 mark, there were nearly 1,800 daily newspapers in 1950.

Newspapers also have lost a huge chunk of retail advertising to broadcasters and other competitors, both locally and nationally. NAA chief economist Miles E. Groves reported good news and bad on that front in the September 1997 issue of Presstime, the NAA’s monthly magazine. Newspapers’ advertising revenue jumped 9.5 percent in the first half of 1997 (the largest increase in a decade) thanks to a strong economy, he said. But he added that their share of the advertising pie has declined nearly 4 percent in 10 years and that the slide is likely to continue into the next century.

The emerging battle
Those problems may only worsen as the popularity of the Internet soars. The Internet Advertising Bureau recently reported a surge in online advertising to $214 million in the second quarter of 1997, or a 322 percent increase over the first half of 1996.

And the threat of the Internet, like television before it, extends beyond the business offices of newspapers and into the newsroom. Newspapers must fight to attract and retain not only an audience, but also the journalists who break the news. An article in the March 1997 issue of American Journalism Review details the exodus of numerous long-time newspaper editors and reporters to news Web sites run by the likes of Microsoft.

What does all this mean for the future of newspapers? That is a question that a lot of newspaper executives, most of whom have launched their own Web sites in an effort to compete, long to have answered.

They may have some answers within the next year. The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, has launched an initiative called the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. Gene Roberts, a former managing editor of The New York Times, heads the project, and AJR will detail its findings in a series of articles beginning next spring.

Perhaps then the men and women who run today’s newspapers will begin to understand why so many of their readers would so nonchalantly toss their newspapers in favor of an emerging electronic medium — and if there are more of them out there.

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