Media Mayhem: Newspapers put a happy spin on their decline
While industry apologists peddle the idea that newspapers are doing just fine, the new media world is leaving them behind.
Mon, Oct 12, 2009 at 07:35 AM
Perhaps, you thought newspapers were bouncing back with the economy. Perhaps, you figured that a recent media stock rally signaled an end to newsroom layoffs and shuttered presses. Perhaps, you divined that ordinary citizens couldn’t stand to see the eyes and ears of their communities disappear.
After all, how else would South Carolina citizens have found out how far their environmental regulators had gone in protecting moneyed interests over the public’s? How would people in Milwaukee have learned about the dangers that bisphenol A poses to babies? Or, for that matter, would the state of Texas ever have been convinced to drop a land sale of the priceless Christmas Mountains if hadn’t been for a newspaper reporter?
Perhaps, you figured that our entire culture couldn’t let such a basic pillar of democracy — the daily newspaper — die off.
You must not, then, have been paying attention to the newspaper industry’s most recent marketing effort. It’s called National Newspaper Week.
From Oct. 4 through Oct. 10, editors, publishers and marketers tried their damnedest to convince their remaining readers that they’re old fogies who are about to teach these young whippersnappers on the Internet a thing or two. By golly.
OK. Not every editor and publisher was involved in this PR fiasco. For some reason, small- and medium-sized papers in the nation’s midsection were disproportionately bent on convincing us that the newspaper crash of the last few years was just a minor fender-bender.
“I like to look at things with a bit of historical perspective,” the executive director of the Nevada Press Association writes in a column that — amazingly — ran in at least one of that state’s major newspapers. “That means I sometimes miss the hottest gossip, and I'm a bit late on the hip new catchphrase (as you can tell). But a bit of perspective is usually valuable.” Newspapers may “go on more or less like they are for another 100 years,” he goes on to say, “while a few thousand Twitters, Facebooks and MySpaces live and die.”
An article in the appropriately named Buffalo Reflex was a meditation on how small papers have nothing to worry about — even though cable TV is providing tough competition for major metro dailies. But there was nary a mention of those tubes and tunnels of the Internets.
The Rockford Register Star was celebrating so vigorously that it didn’t even bother to update its National Newspaper Week message. It simply reprinted a half-century-old statement from President Dwight Eisenhower congratulating the nation’s publishers.
Then, there’s this priceless bit of twaddle out of New Mexico:
Older readers may recall how nearly a century ago doomsayers began the newspaper death chant. It arrived with the invention and growth of the radio industry. They were wrong, but it didn’t stop them from resurrecting the chant in the 1940s with the advent of television. Oops, wrong again.Now it is back, of course, in the age of the Internet.We predict the doom-and-gloomers will be wrong a third time. ...Part of our future at the Clovis News Journal and the Portales News-Tribune — and for our parent company, Freedom Communications Inc. — is to continue our expansion into the ether world of newspapering, the Internet, e-mail and mobile phones.Yes, right now life is a little more complicated because Freedom filed a month ago for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while restructuring its financial position to alleviate debt. But it is moving toward a successful conclusion in several more months.
The truth is that the number of newspapers and the number of journalists employed by them are dropping with the heavy thud that the Sunday New York Times used to make in the good old days. The closings are more than a spot phenomenon. In 1990, more than 1,600 dailies were published. By 2007, there were barely 1,400. In the two years since, you can bet that decline has steepened.
And the newspapers that have disappeared aren’t just big ones. For every Seattle Post-Intelligencer that shuts its doors, there are more than a couple Ann Arbors News and larger numbers of Hillsdale Independents. Small newspapers will be even more threatened as various sorts of Internet aggregators, listing and entertainment sites expand into smaller markets.
Circulation continues to plummet. Early this decade, newspapers were losing 1 or 2 percent of print readers a year. But the rate of readership loss itself has accelerated. By mid-2008, it was approaching 5 percent.
Publishers are trumpeting one bit of good news. When you combine print readership with online readership, they appear to be attracting slightly more readers. But even that silver cloud holds a dark lining.
The low rates of online ads make it difficult to “monetize” those readers. If online revenue can’t replace print revenue, the newspapers end up having to cut reporters anyway. And with fewer reporters, they end up with weaker content, which makes it more difficult to grow readership. It’s a vicious cycle.
Contrary to the lame PR being spun (ironically) by institutions that are dedicated to telling us the truth, the prospect for newspapers -- at least as vehicles to gather information -- is dire.
What does all these mean to the environment? It depends on how deeply you want to look at the issue.
The first level is the direct impact of fewer and smaller print editions. Although there are some contrary views, that’s likely to be good for the environment. Gathering and disseminating information online is pretty energy intensive. But printing fewer pages means less clear cutting of Canadian forests, and a smaller output of carbon and toxins from printing and delivery.
The more profound change is being felt in changes in the ability of citizens to learn what's really going on in their society. Unfortunately, investigative beats that are off the traditional mainstream tend to be the first to disappear when cutbacks occur. I’ve seen that in my community, where the Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated its environmental beat.
At the same time, online-only news sites, blogs, citizen journalism, social networking and having documents available online may leave us with more ways to get more information than a battalion of journalists could ever muster.
I’m not saying we should all be celebrating the decline of daily newspapers. In fact, it’s rather painful to watch industry cheerleaders who pretend that they’re not a team that's losing.
In the long run, however, fewer journalists don’t necessarily mean less journalism. And weaker newspapers don’t necessarily mean a diminished ability for the public to get its news.