It’s no revelation to say the American newspaper industry is facing a crisis, even a matter of survival. Newspapers pre-date the Republic. They have been our foundation of news for more than 300 years. Neither radio nor television ever succeeded in replacing newspapers as our main source of news.
Even today, with the viral growth of the Internet, newspapers remain the foundation, albeit an increasingly shaky one, of news here, but it’s undeniable that we’re witnessing the end of an era. The numbers are quite clear. In 1940, when the population of the United States was 150 million, American newspapers sold 41 million copies a day. By 1945, 48 million copies were sold every day. The growth in circulation continued, although at a slower pace, until 1984, when it peaked at 63 million. By then, U.S. population had grown to 236 million. http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/visualizations/total-us-newspaper-circulation-194 Newspapers were still profitable, very profitable in many instances, but newspaper owners were becoming aware that circulation wasn’t keeping pace with the population growth.
The trend changed in 1984. By 1994, daily circulation was down to 59 million. Ten years later, it was 54.5 million. Between 1994 and 2007, daily paid circulation declined by nine million copies. (U.S. Census Bureau,Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2010, Table 1099. Daily and Sunday Newspapers—Number and Circulation, Total:1991 to 2008 and by State, 2008) The number of daily newspapers dropped from 1,548 to 1,422. The decline continues.
What, if anything, is going to take the place of news on paper in America? The most obvious answer is the Internet, but that begs the question where will Internet news come from? Behind most of the “free” news websites are newspapers. They supply the wherewithal to gather and publish what we read, whether we get it on paper or on a computer screen. Newspapers are still footing most of the bill. Secondary websites that feature news often are getting it by rewriting material they’ve cadged from newspaper sites or from the Associated Press, which is still fundamentally a creature supported by newspapers.
Televised news, now leaner than ever, would be helpless without newspapers offering up a menu of stories for local stations to browse through to decide what to cover. National Public Radio makes a valiant effort to cover Washington, America and the world, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it justice, especially when the average news item is two or three minutes long and news reports are only two hours in the morning, and another two in the evening
Change is always painful. Those of us who devoted our professional lives and made our living at newspapers lament the passing of the old order. But there’s no use in crying over spilt milk or trying to figure out how to turn the tide. Some of the proposed solutions, such as government- subsidized news gathering and publishing in one form or another, promise to create more problems than they would solve. No matter how well insulated news organizations would supposedly be, inevitably politicians would claim the right to look over the shoulders of reporters and editors as they decide what to publish and what not to. Who pays the piper calls the tune. It’s just that simple.
None of the proposals—whether for micropayments, altruistic angels purchasing failing newspapers, government subsidies, or any variation or combination of them—holds out a remote promise of being able to generate the amount of income needed to support the level of journalistic enterprise we have had and continue to need in order to provide our citizens with the information they require to sustain democracy in America. We are surely all too aware that there are plenty of voices, and more than adequate resources to fund them, that are ready to invent, or distort, news to help shape the future in ways that we will find grotesque.
There are, however, some promising efforts being made to continue the finest traditions of American journalism. A number of organizations involved with investigative reporting have formed a consortium to further their shared goal of protecting the public interest from government, corporate and other special interests. Where will the money come from to support these efforts? Will it be enough to take up the slack as newspapers fade away.http://cpublici.wordpress.com/
A great deal of attention is being paid to the promise of the Internet—to its speed, to its ubiquity. Anyone, supposedly, can now be a reporter. Anyone, like me, with a computer, a little money, opinions to air and a little (or a lot) of ego can go online, set up a soapbox and start preaching. Whether or not we get heard is another matter. In fact, the profusion of news and opinions creates a problem.
Is more necessarily better? How can we choose what to read? With so much available, how will we know where to look and what to look for? Go to look for something on Google and you could wind up with more than a million choices. With all this “information” instantly available, how are we going to judge its accuracy? How will we know what to believe and trust and what to be skeptical about? How will the truth catch up with the viral spread of a lie? And how long will it be before fat corporations muscle their way in to dominate this new medium and drown out other voices?
These are the kinds of questions I want to bring up for discussion here in the coming weeks and months. Won’t you join in?