For anyone interested in the news business, it’s hard to avoid the sense that newspapers are at death’s door. Every day brings more news of layoffs, bankruptcies, and closings in the print journalism industry.
But why are things so dire for newspapers at the moment?
The Decline Begins With Radio & TV
Newspapers have a long and storied history that dates back hundreds of years. (You can read about that history here.) And while their roots are in the 1600s, newspapers thrived in the U.S. well into the 20th century.
But with the advent of radio and later TV, newspaper circulation (the number of copies sold) began a gradual but steady decline. By the mid-20th century, people simply didn’t have to rely on newspapers as their only source of news anymore. That was especially true of breaking news, which could be conveyed much more quickly via broadcast media.
And as television newscasts became more sophisticated, TV became the dominant mass medium. This trend accelerated with the rise of CNN and 24-hour cable news networks.
Newspapers Begin to Disappear
Afternoon newspapers were the first casualties. People coming home from work increasingly turned on the TV instead of opening a newspaper, and afternoon papers in the 1950s and 1960s saw their circulations plunge and profits dry up. TV also captured more and more of the ad revenue that newspapers had relied on.
But even with TV grabbing more and more audience and ad dollars, newspapers still managed to survive. Papers couldn’t compete with television in terms of speed, but they could provide the kind of in-depth news coverage that TV news never could.
So savvy editors retooled papers with this in mind. More stories were written with a feature-type approach that emphasized storytelling over breaking news, and papers were redesigned to be more visually appealing, with a greater emphasis on clean layouts and graphic design.
The Emergence of the Internet
But if TV represented a body blow to the newspaper industry, the world wide web may prove to be the nail in the coffin. With the emergence of the internet in the 1990s, vast amounts of information were suddenly free for the taking. Most newspapers, not wanting to be left behind the times, started websites in which they essentially gave away their most valuable commodity – their content - for free. This model continues to be the predominant one in use today.
Now, however, many analysts believe this was possibly a fatal mistake. Many once-loyal newspaper readers realized that if they could conveniently access news online for free, there seemed to be little reason to pay for a newspaper subscription.
The Recession Worsens Print Journalism's Woes
The recent economic hard times have only accelerated the problem. Revenue from print ads has plunged, and even online ad revenue, which publishers had hoped would make up the difference, has slowed. And websites like Craigslist have eaten away at classified ad revenue.
“The online business model just won’t support newspapers at the level Wall Street demands,” says Chip Scanlan of The Poynter Institute, a journalism thinktank. “Craigslist has decimated newspaper classifieds.”
With profits plunging, newspaper publishers have responded with layoffs and cutbacks, but Scanlan worries this will just makes things worse.
“They’re not helping themselves by whacking sections and laying people off,” he says. “They’re cutting the things that people look for in newspapers.”
Indeed, that’s the conundrum facing newspapers and their readers. All agree that newspapers still represent an unrivaled source of in-depth news, analysis and opinion, and that if papers disappear entirely, there will be nothing to take their place.
What the Future Holds
Opinions abound as to what newspapers must do to survive. Many say papers must start charging for their web content in order to support print issues. Others say printed papers will soon go the way of the Studebaker and that newspapers are destined to become online-only entities.
But what actually will happen remains anybody’s guess.
When Scanlan thinks of the predicament the internet poses for newspapers today, he’s reminded of the Pony Express riders who in 1860 started what was meant to be a speedy mail delivery service, only to be rendered obsolete a year later by the telegraph.
“They represented a great leap in communication delivery but it only lasted a year,” Scanlan says. “As they were whipping their horses into a lather to deliver the mail, beside them were these guys ramming in long wooden poles and connecting wires for the telegraph. It’s a reflection of what changes in technology mean.”